Image: AP

What do bong-ripping Olympian Michael Phelps, artisanal snake oil saleswoman Gwyneth Paltrow, and chicken aficionado Jessica Simpson have in common?

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If you somehow guessed “they’ve all tried the scientifically dubious practice of cupping,” congratulations! You get a gold medal!

Last night, as the aforementioned Phelps won his 19th gold medal, Olympics viewers may have noticed something weird on the gluttonous amphibian’s back: vaguely alarming brownish-red circles. CNN helpfully points out that they were not, in fact, “cigar burns” or “perfectly circular hickeys,” but rather marks from cupping therapy.

What’s that, Michael? (Image: AP)

Cupping is a very old form of alternative medicine that has most commonly been used across the Middle East and Asia. According to the helpful website www.cuppingresource.com, it’s “based on the belief that by creating vacuums using cups on specific points of a patient’s body, the life force within that person’s body can be restored to its equilibrium and cure illnesses.” Broadly, it involves placing cups on the skin in order to create suction.

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It’s also quite popular with Olympic athletes, who say it’s good for recovery and injury management. Here’s Phelps getting cupped a few months back:

And here he is again getting cupped in a commercial for Under Armour:

And here’s swimmer Pavel Sankovich getting the Phelps treatment:

Boy, Michael Phelps really loves getting cupped!

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But wait, this sounds like total bullshit, you might be thinking. You’re not totally wrong. As the New York Times notes, “There’s not much science to determine whether cupping offers a real physiological benefit or whether the athletes simply are enjoying a placebo effect.”

One 2012 study, which was published in the journal PLOS One and examined previous research on cupping, found the following:

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Meta-analysis showed cupping therapy combined with other TCM treatments was significantly superior to other treatments alone in increasing the number of cured patients with herpes zoster, facial paralysis, acne, and cervical spondylosis. No serious adverse effects were reported in the trials.

But before you go booking an appointment with your local cupper, the researchers also found, “The studies were generally of low methodological quality.” More specifically, “Of the 135 RCTs [randomized controlled trials] included in this review, 84.44 percent were high risk of bias.” That’s a lot of bias.

Another 2012 study concluded that “cupping massage is no more effective than progressive muscle relaxation in reducing chronic non-specific neck pain,” but noted that additional research was still needed on the subject.

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The athletes, however, swear by it. In fact, gymnast Alex Naddour bought his cupping kit on Amazon. “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour told USA Today. “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

Personally, I’d just stick to the bong rips.