Cupping goes mainstream, but Royals pitchers have used treatment for years

Why team USA athletes have been 'spotted' with cupping marks

Several Team USA athletes have been spotted (literally) with round purple or red marks. An acupuncturist says these are the telltale signs of an ancient Chinese medicine practice called cupping. She explains why elite athletes may find it useful.
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Several Team USA athletes have been spotted (literally) with round purple or red marks. An acupuncturist says these are the telltale signs of an ancient Chinese medicine practice called cupping. She explains why elite athletes may find it useful.

On a quiet morning earlier this week, Royals starter Ian Kennedy found himself in front of a television, catching up on highlights from the Olympics in Rio. As he watched the latest gold-medal performance from swimmer Michael Phelps, Kennedy noticed a collection of large, circular bruises on Phelps’ shoulders — the markings that had lit up social media and caused a stir earlier in the week.

The bruises were round and purplish and equally spaced out — like Phelps had been attacked by a shop-vac — and in an instant, Kennedy recognized the splotches.

“Hey,” Kennedy said. “He’s been cupping!

Yes, welcome to the summer of cupping, the traditional Chinese therapy used to aid in athletic recovery. Spurred by an indirect endorsement from Phelps and the global visibility of the Olympics, the alternative medicine treatment has become nearly ubiquitous in recent days, attracting loads of media attention and sparking debate about its effectiveness. But inside the Royals’ clubhouse — and inside training rooms across Major League Baseball — the use of cupping is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for years.

Kennedy, 31, considers himself a devotee of the therapy. So does left-hander Danny Duffy. Reliever Joakim Soria says he has “cupped” for years, going back to his first stint in Kansas City. And the list of casual users includes Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang, a native of Taiwan who first used the treatment when he was 14 years old. The methods change from player to player. Some, like Kennedy, incorporate cupping in the days after starts. Others use it more sporadically. But nearly all vouch for its effectiveness on some level.

“You can feel it,” Soria says. “You’re going to feel better the next day.”

So what exactly is cupping? There are different techniques, but at its simplest form, the treatment involves applying glass cups to a specific muscle — the back, the shoulder, the thigh — and applying heat or air to create a vacuum effect. The suction pulls the fascia and skin away from the muscle and causes bruising. Athletes believe the therapy can increase blood flow and help fatigued muscles recover faster.

Of course, it can also leave pitchers with an assortment of bruises that look like large polka dots, spread across the back and shoulders.

“It looks like you got attacked by an octopus,” Duffy says.

The treatment has its skeptics in the medical community, something that has been noted since Phelps first swam with bruises on his shoulders. There is little research or scientific evidence to suggest that cupping works. And some believe the positive effects of cupping are the result of nothing more than a placebo effect. Still, the Royals are far from the only major-league team to use cupping for recovery.

Kennedy was introduced to it in 2010, when he was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Chris Young remembers pitchers “cupping” as far back as 2008 or 2009. Moylan said he first learned of cupping from a trainer with the Atlanta Braves.

Unlike Kennedy, Soria and Duffy, Moylan said he rarely uses cupping during the season. But he has used it when rehabbing from back and shoulder injuries.

“I don’t feel the difference,” Moylan said. “It’s supposed to lift up the skin and allow the blood flow to come in. I don’t think you necessarily feel the difference. But it’s one of those things where if you were to go a day without doing it, and something happened, you might think: ‘Oh, maybe I should have cupped.’ ”

If Moylan is somewhat unmoved by the virtues of cupping, then Kennedy is its strongest proponent, at least inside the Royals’ clubhouse. A few years ago, Kennedy said, he bought his own cupping set to take home during the offseason. Kennedy would note the muscles that needed treatment after offseason workouts, and if he couldn’t reach them, his wife Allison would help.

“Sometimes I just need it,” Kennedy says.

Which is why Kennedy laughed when seeing the reddish bruises on Phelps’ shoulders this week. After six years of cupping, he was familiar with how people often responded to the bruises. On the first day he tried the treatment — at spring training in 2010 — he returned home and sought to relax. Then his wife saw the marks.

“My wife was like, ‘What happened to your back?’ ” Kennedy says. “It was like, ‘No, it’s OK. It’s supposed to look like that.”