The increasingly popular ‘cupping’ ritual relies on suction to speed up recovery

Olympians sporting purple marks that were the result of the ancient Chinese therapy called “cupping” were a familiar sight in Rio.

Popularised by A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow (who else?), the technique proved popular with swimmers, Michael Phelps included, and the US track and field team, many of whom reportedly use the approach to aid muscle relief.

Cinzia Scorzon, senior lecturer in life sciences at the University of Westminster, says: “The suction created by the cupping enlarges the capillary vessels in the muscle, increasing the volume of blood entering and exiting the tissues in the targeted areas.

“This facilitates oxygen and nutrients to reach regions affected by pain, stiffness, cramps and fatigue.”

She adds: “The purple hue that cupping leaves on the skin lasts for a few days, however it does not signify damage or pain, but rather that the area was tighter and needed release.”

But is there any evidence that it works? A small number of studies have shown that cupping seems to help relieve pain and muscle fatigue, although its effectiveness has never been tested in large, controlled clinical trials. The most recent, published in the journal Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, tested how well cupping therapy worked on people with muscular pain in their necks and shoulders.

Of the 60 participants, half received cupping therapy, while the other half had no treatment at all. Results showed that cupping was linked to a significant easing of pain, but the researchers didn’t account for the power of the mind and critics suggest that the placebo effect might have been at play.

In a review of all available evidence a few years ago, Edzard Ernst, the emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula School of Medicine, University of Exeter, concluded that “considerable uncertainty remains about the therapeutic value of cupping”.