The intriguing purple circular patches, visible on the back and shoulders of Michael Phelps in Rio, has brought the age-old cupping therapy into the limelight. It is a technique that can help in recovery after exertion during competition or training.
However, this is not the first time swimmers have used this therapy at the Games.
“It is now that people have noticed the purple patches on Phelps,” says swimmer Sandeep Sejwal, who represented India in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “So the focus is on cupping therapy and people are curious to know more about it. But this therapy is not new in the international swimming circles and the swimmers, especially from China, South Korea and the US, have been using it for a long time.”
Sejwal doesn’t recall which competition he first noticed swimmers using the therapy. “But I remember that during the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese, Koreans and Americans were using it,” recalls the breaststroke swimmer, who had won a bronze medal in the 2014 Inchon Asian Games.
Cupping therapy is an ancient Chinese form of medicine in which, either through heat or suction, the skin is gently drawn upwards by creating vacuum in a cup. The cup stays in place for some time. The therapy’s practitioners believe that it helps to mobilise blood flow and promote healing and muscle recovery.
So, do Indian swimmers use cupping therapy?
“No. In India, we (referring to swimmers) don’t use cupping. It is part of recovery infrastructure for sure but in India we lack all these things,” says Sejwal. “Swimming at international level is not only about swimming fast in pools. There is a lot of other supporting infrastructure which is important and plays a crucial role in helping the athlete perform at his or her best. But here we hardly have access [to] them.”
In Bengaluru, where Sejwal is based, there are establishments, including International Cupping Association of India, which provide cupping therapy to clients.
“Bangalore is a big city and takes lot of travelling time to move from one corner to another,” says Sejwal. So, it is not possible for an athlete every day to go to an institute or hospital to have a therapy and then come back for training. And recovery therapies are an every day process. Systems that help in recovery and injury management, or support systems such as cupping therapy, has to be provided in the same facility where the athletes train. Only then will it be beneficial for us.”
Cupping therapy explained
1. It is an ancient Chinese form of alternative medicine.
2. In it, local suction is created on the skin through heat or technical devices.
3. The skin is gently drawn upwards by creating a vacuum in a cup over the target area.
4. The cup stays in place for five to fifteen minutes.
5. This mobilises blood flow and promotes healing.
6. Modern medical science has not substantiated the benefits of cupping.