Michael Phelps is a walking advertisement for pseudoscience

So the magic potion for this Olympics as everyone knows by now is “cupping.” Steven Novella takes on the challenge.

Four years ago, while watching the 2012 Olympic Games, I noticed a lot of athletes wearing colored strips in various patterns on their body. I discovered that these strips were called kinesiotape, and they were used to enhance performance, reduce injury, and help muscles recover more quickly. I also discovered that these claims for kinesiotape were complete nonsense.

I missed that one. So much bullshit, so little time.

Athletes look for any kind of edge, Novella says, so that makes them suckers for pseudoscience, and useful to people who are selling pseudoscience.

The industry targets professional or elite athletes, and then uses them as an endorsement for their products so that the average weekend athlete will buy their product.

This is what is most troubling about Michael Phelps walking around the Olympic pool with circular bruises all over his back. He is a walking advertisement for pseudoscience.

Phelps relies on cupping, and Phelps wins. You do the math. (Yes but what about all the people who emulate Phelps in cupping but don’t win? Never you mind.)

Like many “ancient” alternative treatments, cupping began its life as a completely superstition-based therapy, part of a pre-scientific culture without the slightest clue about the physiological mechanisms of health and disease.

Cupping is a form of bloodletting. Today this is called “wet cupping” to distinguish it from “dry cupping” which does not cause bleeding. The treatment involves placing a glass cup against the skin and then creating a partial vacuum in the cup in order to suck blood to the skin. Traditionally this was achieved by burning incense on top of the cup to heat the air inside.

In wet cupping the practitioner would then lance the skin and let the blood flow. The purpose of this was to remove “stagnant blood, expel heat, treat high fever, loss of consciousness, convulsion, and pain.” Well, that is what some TCM practitioners say today. Back in the day the purpose was to purge “chi”, a word that means blood, or the energy within blood. Cupping was nothing but Chinese bloodletting.

Bleeding people was a very popular “treatment” until surprisingly recently. Byron died of being repeatedly bled when he was ill with a fever, probably malaria.

Cupping is the same old bullshit it always was, but the “explanations” offered for why it “works” have changed to fit newer quack beliefs.

One manifestation of this is the specific claims for what the treatment treats. The target ailments tend to gravitate toward common subjective symptoms. Low back pain, muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue, and headaches are all common targets. This is a clear sign that the claims made for these treatments are being driven by market forces, not plausibility, evidence, research, or science.

Another manifestation is the alleged mechanisms cited to justify the treatment. These tend to follow the popular narratives of the day, and again are driven by market forces, not science. Centuries ago cupping would release chi. Today it is used to expel unnamed toxins, increase blood flow, or activate the immune system.

It’s detox socks all over again.

There’s no good evidence that cupping works.

Apologists might argue that at least the therapy is benign, but not so fast. There is a tendency to assume that a treatment is benign just because no one has bothered to document potential risks.

For example, there is a case report of cupping clearly causing the spread of psoriasis in one patient – the psoriatic lesions occurred in a strange circular pattern, getting the attention of the dermatologists treating the patient.

More common side effects include bruising, burns, and skin infection.

I don’t consider a bunch of bruises “benign” anyway.

11 Responses to “Michael Phelps is a walking advertisement for pseudoscience”