Those giant hickey-like circles dotting the skin of Olympic athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps aren't rashes caused by drinking the water in Rio. And they're not cultish tattoos, either. They're the temporary side effects of using a healing practice that dates back to 3000 B.C.
It's called cupping, and while it might look painful, especially because of the marks it leaves on the body for a few days, it doesn't hurt. Here's how it's supposed to work: If you're trying to treat soreness, injuries or increase muscle flexibility and function, you attach suction cups directly to that area of your body for 10 to 15 minutes. The theory is that, when these suction cups lift the skin, they also separate the layers of soft tissue directly underneath them—most notably the thin layer of fibrous tissue (fascia) that surrounds your muscles and organs. This separation allows muscles to function more freely and helps improve blood flow. Your blood transports healing agents to injured areas, which helps reduce pain and inflammation and speeds recovery from an injury.
"When you get a normal massage, you're compressing those layers of soft tissue," says Golf Digest medical advisor Dr. Ara Suppiah, who is the physician for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. "Cupping does the opposite. Think of it this way: Imagine playing golf in a tight jacket. It really restricts your swing. But then you unzip it, suddenly you feel like you've got more room to move."
Although unproven scientifically, Suppiah says centuries of anecdotal evidence was good enough for him to introduce it to most of the professional golfers he treats. He's been using it for four years. In addition to improving muscle function, mobility and blood flow, Suppiah says cupping also might help in the removal of waste products to an injured area and rehabilitate places with scar tissue.
"But I think the real benefit for recreational golfers would be that it increases mobility," Suppiah says. "Lets say you are recovering from an injury and are really tight, or simply can't move like you used to. Cupping can help. I've seen a 30-percent increase in range of movement with just one treatment."
Dr. Bradley Borne, director of wellness at Golf & Body in New York City, uses cupping on his clients. Some get weekly treatments. He says the shoulders and scapulae are two areas he treats with cupping because of the stress they endure during during a golf swing.
“First, the set-up position puts the shoulders in internal rotation and a bit rounded,” Borne says. “Moving the club up to the top puts pressure on the top of the trail shoulder joint (right shoulder for right handed golfers). And as the club comes through on the downswing, the muscles of the back of the trail shoulder get stretched and are recruited to help slow everything down.”
When a club is repeatedly swung at high speeds, all of that torque is going to cause your shoulders to get sore and mobility can become restricted., he says. Another problem area for golfers where cupping could help is the lower back.
“Like foam rolling and even stretching, the research doesn’t overwhelmingly support cupping," Borne says. "But many great therapists are incorporating cupping into their treatment strategies because, at the end of the day, it’s safe and most people feel better."
If you want to give cupping a try, Suppiah also endorses it. However, there three things to remember:
1. Do not cup immediately before you play golf. Only do it on off days or after you play. Why? It can get your muscles so loose, you'll lose a feel for your swing and your timing will be wrecked. "You won't feel the top of your backswing and things like that," Suppiah says. "One tour pro who did it before a round went out and shot 10-over."
2. Do not cup areas that you're massaging or foam rolling on the same day. "You can massage a hamstring and cup a quadriceps muscle, but don't foam roll a hamstring and then cup it, or vice versa. Defeats the purpose."
3. You can do the cupping yourself, but make sure you buy silicone suction cups. You can get a set of four for less than $30. "If you have general soreness, make sure you put multiple cups on to cover as much of the area as possible," Suppiah says. "All you need is 10 minutes."
with Keely Levins