I tried ‘cupping’, the suction treatment Olympians can’t get enough of

Michael Phelps does it and he’s won 19 gold medals

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you’ll have seen them: but what are those huge red circles on the backs, shoulders and chests of the athletes?

Hijama, or “cupping” as it’s more commonly known, is a therapeutic technique used by Olympic athletes from Michael Phelps to Alex Naddour. The popular treatment involves using suction on certain areas of the body to alleviate aches and pains – and although garish in look, it’s certainly well-respected in the world of athletics.

So is it all pseudo-science, or can those big lumpy paintball-marks really make you feel better? I headed to the London Cupping Clinic in Tooting to see what they could do for me.

At the clinic I met Clinical Director Dr. Munir Ravalia, who told me cupping isn’t the new fad you might expect: “We’ve seen several thousands of patients before this Olympics, so it really isn’t new to us.

“Cupping can reactivate your immune system, by targeting areas where there’s a build-up of toxins. It can be used for everything from sports injuries, to high blood pressure, to migraines.

“The fact is, people benefit from it: they’re tired of getting painkillers, drugs and medication. This process allows the body to heal itself, and that’s why people like it.”

Confident in Munir’s ability to turn me into a veritable Olympic athlete, I whipped off my shirt and prepared to be cupped.

The process began with the application of a suction cup to the centre of my back, from which the air was extracted with a sort-of giant syringe. With every pump, a bit more of my skin would puff up – until I was left with what looked like a small bald man’s head protruding from the middle of my back.

I’d been having a bit of exercise-related shoulder pain, so Munir kindly agreed to apply a cup to my shoulder to see if he could alleviate a bit of the discomfort. After another cup was applied on the other side, it was time to let the process work its magic.

After a few minutes, the pump was back out and the cups were being prised from my back. It’s at this point that the oft-photographed cupping marks arise – the suction creates something like an enormous love bite, and the lasting redness on the skin is much the same.

The marks, proudly sported across the last few days by a number of Olympic swimmers and gymnasts, can last anywhere between three days and three weeks.

I was already feeling some of the deep-tissue massage benefits, so I couldn’t refuse when Munir offered me the more extreme level of cupping treatment.

In layman’s terms, the application of the suction itself is “dry cupping”. The more intensive (and effective) alternative, “wet cupping,” involves making tiny incisions into the suctioned areas and then sucking out the top layer of blood, vampire-style.

Munir says there are areas in the body in which toxins build up, and it is these “collection points” where the cupping is done. He likens the process to an oil change in a car, in that it removes the old toxicity and encourages the body to create new blood.

I’m no scientist, but how could I resist when he put it like that?

I won’t go into too much vivid detail about the process, but rest assured it was suitably R-rated. All I will say is that there was a scalpel, plenty of wincing and more blood than I usually care to lose before 1:00 on a Tuesday afternoon.

Admittedly I was sceptical about the leech-like idea of bleeding at first, but the blood that came out was solid. Literally solid – like jelly. As I held a blob of my own plasma in my hand, I was ready to admit I’d rather not have something that looked like that in my body.

After the process was finished, I felt like a latch had been unlocked in my back. My movement felt freer already, which was probably a factor in me jumping to my feet with boundless energy and then almost fainting from the enormous headrush.

After a glass of sugary water I was already to feel a bit more like my normal self, helped by the fact that my wounds had been disinfected and soothed with extra-virgin olive oil. Light-headedness is a common side effect of the procedure, as the body replenishes itself after the blood loss: thus, I’m warned off caffeine for 48 hours and advised to skip the gym.

I awarded myself a two-litre bottle of water and a sit-down after leaving the clinic, mainly because I didn’t fancy face-planting the steps of Tooting Bec station. The feeling wasn’t unpleasant, though: it was a kind of post-massage euphoria, and I could understand why Munir had told me some patients get quite addicted.

There are many sceptics when it comes to cupping, a combination of what Munir describes as a lack of research and the practise’s groundings in traditional, ancient medicine. He’s happy, therefore, that athletes at the highest level are starting to see its benefits.

By the time I arrived back at the office the colour in my face had returned, and I was already feeling a bit less taught. I got a text from Munir, telling me I might feel light for a couple of days but the real boost of energy will come after that.

Do I feel better for it? Yes. Is it a placebo effect? I hope not, but I guess the next few days will tell. If it’s good enough for the Olympians, though, I’m tempted to say it’s good enough for me – and despite any squeamish reservations, I’m excited to bound into the gym on Thursday with the enthusiasm of a gold medallist.

I think I’ll keep my shirt on, though.