Most people know about some forms of traditional Chinese medicine. But it was those reddish circles visible on several Olympic swimmers a few weeks ago that got people talking about the ancient practice of cupping.

Golden boy Michael Phelps was the most visible example, but several other elite Olympic athletes were seen with signs of having undergone cupping, which proponents say can help with pain, strains and as a form of massage. It’s trendy in Hollywood, too, so some people might have heard about it that way.

The procedure involves a practitioner heating up specially shaped cups then placing the cups on the skin, open-side down, or using a pump device to create suction in cups. The air inside the cups will form a vacuum, raising the skin.

Cupping is used around the world in folk medicine, from Russia to the Middle East to Mexico. It is common in Chinese medicine and Unani Tibb, the medicine of the Middle East.

For most people watching the Olympics, a passing reference to the red circles got people’s attention, since these are elite athletes looking for any edge they can get. For people looking for traditional scientific proof, there aren’t enough studies. But people were certainly talking about cupping after Phelps and others showed the telltale marks of a trendy — though actually ancient — practice.

Acupuncture is a much better known traditional Chinese practice, using the application of thin, sterile needles to specific points on the body for therapeutic purposes. Acupuncture has been shown to release endorphins and enkephalins, some of our body’s own pain killers, along with neurotransmitters and neurohormones.

Both the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health have stated that acupuncture may be beneficial for pain, including joint pain. The World Health Organization has stated that acupuncture has been proven, through controlled trials, to be an effective treatment for knee pain, low back pain, neck pain, jaw pain, shoulder pain, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, sprain and tennis elbow.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses many other practices. But those are the ones that people know best—or at least know now, thanks to the Olympics.

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