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How Is Cupping Different From a Hickey?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you may have noticed port-wine-colored circles on Michael Phelps’s body. Don’t worry — Phelps is not suffering from a rare degenerative condition that afflicts half-men/half-really-fast-eels. Phelps is a fan of cupping, which is an alternative therapy technique in which suction cups are placed on the body to lift the skin from the muscle. The cups rupture capillaries to create distinctive round bruises.

You know what else ruptures capillaries to create distinctive bruises by suctioning the skin until it becomes noticeably damaged? Hickeys. Yes — love bites. Horny neck mwahs. Kissies from Vampire Mommy.

Phelps’s high-profile cupping endorsement has led to many explainers about what it is. My question, however, remains unanswered: What exactly makes cupping different from just getting a whole mess of hickeys? If Phelps had his body strategically suckled by dozens of eager mouths, would it not achieve the same effect?

Cupping is bang-on effective at making people look like they got owned at an unnecessarily vicious paintball tournament. As far as actual health benefits go, however, cupping is an eyebrow-raising therapy. As The New York Times noted this week, two studies from 2012 suggest that athletes may benefit from a placebo effect when they cup. To my knowledge, exactly ZERO studies have been carried out comparing cupping to the ol’ sloppy lip vacuum.

I called Los Angeles’s Western River Acupuncture, which offers cupping, to find out what distinguishes hickeys from cup marks. “Hickies would be different because the location would be different than our location, and also hickeys wouldn’t treat the whole body and the mind,” one of the practitioners, who asked that I not use their name, told me. They said that Michael Phelps is likely undergoing emotional stress as well as muscle aches, and that cupping can help with relaxation.

Couldn’t hickeys also help, if administered in the correct locations? “It might, but I don’t know because I’m not a researcher, so I can’t tell you yes or no,” they said. “I wouldn’t say no, if it was in the right spot.”

I asked the same question to Pain Control Acupuncture Clinic’s Yu-Chen Lin: How is cupping really different from a hickey blitz? “It’s different. With cupping, we use alcohol and a cotton ball,” Lin said, stressing that she focuses on performing cupping on acupuncture points to alleviate pain.

“It’s good for the energy, for circulation, for detoxing,” she said. “The hickey is the mouth. I know what you mean, but it’s different. … Hickeys just makes a bruise, but cupping is traditional, old-fashioned. It’s from China, and from Russia, and from many other countries.”

These answers did not satisfy me, as they did not actually explain why cups provide effective therapy while mouths do not. I decided to ask a notable cupping skeptic, Dr. Harriet Hall, who has called cupping “quackery” and “mumbo-jumbo.” (Hall has also written that cupping in the military is “endangering troops.” She’s not mincing words.) I asked her if she thought that cupping is different from just plain getting hickeys.

“They are both methods of applying suction to the skin,” Hall told me via email. “A hickey is suction trauma accidentally incurred during an experience of sexual pleasure; cupping bruises are more extensive trauma deliberately incurred in the false belief that it will provide therapeutic benefits.”

Until a brave soul embraces the mass hickeying practice that I just made up, I suppose we will never know exactly how cupping differs from group mouth vacuuming. (However, if you want to see what cupping can look like in practice, my editor sent me some truly horrifying images that may haunt me forever. I’m so sorry.)

As for Hall, she has a hypothesis about how effective a hickey pile-on would be: “I think it would work just as well [as cupping]; that is to say, not at all.”