Olympians pique interest in whether alternative treatments are golden

Cupping_resultsWith fans around the world fixated on  the U.S. gold medal-winning Olympic swimming team, curious minds wanted to know: Just what were those circular, purple marks covering the much-bared bodies of athletes like Michael Phelps?

To anyone who has spent time in East Asia or who lives in a metropolis (like Washington, D.C.) with sizable populations of people of Asian descent, the answer was easy: the Olympians had undergone “cupping.” It’s a treatment for muscle soreness or pain from over-exertion.

Practitioners put special cups on their patients, then use heat (sometimes from burning candles or mug wort or “moxa”) or pumps to extract the air from them, pulling up the skin, and providing drug-free benefit. The treatment, akin to a teen-aged “hickey,” leaves a superficial bruise or discoloration.

Does this, and other, similar forms of alternative, Eastern, Chinese, or complementary medicine help? Got a few days to discuss the issue, including the challenging consideration of whether chi really matters? Healthnewsreview.org offers a good look at the media frenzy over cupping and the evidence about it.

The New York Times, meantime, cites several studies on the benefits of cupping, published in peer-reviewed health and medical journals. But the experts quoted also emphasized that athletes may benefit most, not just from cupping, but the placebo effect−if they’re told repeatedly its good for them, and if they feel even a little bit better, their minds can exaggerate the treatment’s favorable outcomes.

The Chinese, a third of the planet’s people, long have pursued theories and therapies in health and medicine that differ vastly from those in the West. Along with President Nixon’s opening of China, Americans were riveted years ago by New York Times columnist James Reston’s account of receiving what he termed beneficial acupuncture as part of an appendix surgery in Beijing. Scientific American recounted the impact of Reston’s account in popularizing acupuncture and other Eastern therapies, including cupping, in the West−and the thin scientific evidence to support this kind of care.

The Chinese since, of course, have adopted widely Western medical advances; the West has prominent centers like the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the lead federal agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. California endorses acupuncture to the extent that it tests and licenses thousands of practitioners. But even as well-known a research- and evidence-based institution as the RAND Corp., when confronting the question of the validity of complementary or alternative medicine and what policies should apply to these, sort of ducked.

Photo by Bentevb at English Wikipedia / Creative Commons

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