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Cupping therapy used by Olympic athletes showcases ages-old practice

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Those big red welts on Michael Phelps' back are all over the internet and being seen throughout the states, where the ancient Chinese medicine practice isn't all that common.

But licensed acupuncturist Tyehau Lu said he's been doing it on his local patients for decades.

"It's very effective in treating pain," Lu said, adding that the procedure is often done as an adjunct therapy with acupuncture.

Cupping is also used for more than muscle recovery and pain management, which is the primary reason Olympic athletes in Rio de Janeiro are using it. Patients can also find relief from symptoms of asthma and gastrointestinal issues with cupping, according to Lu.

"It helps the blood to flow freely to the area and through the area," he said.

And while there isn't much research (in English) to back the ancient Eastern medicine practice, Lu said cupping has been used as a medicinal therapy for more than 1,000 years. The first recorded use was sometime between 300 and 400 A.D., according to the “Classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine,” he said.

It works for 33-year-old Maria, who was at Master Lu's on Thursday for acupuncture and cupping therapy for several herniated discs in her lower back. She said she's tried many options, but the pain gets so bad at times, she can't move.

"As soon as I had it done, it was immediate relief," she said. "I never went back to anything else."

Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, works as a private chef and stands a lot for her job, but she injured her back lifting and moving a lot of boxes. She said that in addition to immediate and long-lasting pain relief, the acupuncture and cupping procedure is "relaxing" to go through.

She will have about three appointments within the week and then not need to return until pain flares up again from overuse, Lu said.

Behind-the-scenes snippets on television show practitioners using plastic cups and a suction method to adhere them to an athlete's skin, though the traditional method is a little different. At Master Lu's Health Clinic, 3220 S. State in South Salt Lake, glass cups are used, and the inside of them is heated with a cotton ball lit on fire after it is soaked in alcohol. The method creates a vacuum, burning out all the oxygen within the cup and softly sucking the skin into the cylinder.

Lu said depending on the level of pain, the cups are left on the body for three to five minutes. They are sometimes moved around, containing the pressure created by the vacuum, resulting in the same effects of a deep tissue massage to the area.

The welts, a factor of broken capillaries at the surface of the skin, or bruising, typically go away in a couple days' time if the procedure is done correctly and according to traditional Chinese medicine.

Practitioners in the United States must complete four years of a master's degree-level program at one of nearly 60 accredited schools in the country. To become licensed, they must have at least 3,000 hours of training.

Lu is following in his father's footsteps, continuing the tradition of Chinese medicine for their dozens of patients every day, as their clinic has been operating in Utah for 40 years. He said through the services they offer, patients have experienced relief from all kinds of pain, specifically neck and back pain, success in weight loss, fixed infertility issues, reduced stress and anxiety and overcome drug and alcohol addictions.

"Most patients come to acupuncture as a last resort," Lu said. "They've done all they can using other methods, and they're willing to give it one last try. But it ends up working for them."

The services offered at Master Lu's, including cupping therapy, are sometimes covered by insurance, but are available for $60 per session or $250 for a package of five treatments.

He said cupping is not often used as stand-alone therapy. But, he agrees, the method provides quick recovery for athletes who use their bodies a lot and need to compete again soon, such as would be the case for Team USA's Phelps.

"It's something that has been around for so long, people have been using it for all kinds of ailments and it is effective," Lu said.


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