Michael Phelps of the US is seen with a red cupping mark on his shoulder as he competes in the 4x100m Freestyle Relay Final at the Rio Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Cupping, an ancient alternative therapy practised in Egypt, China and the Middle East, is now allowed in the UAE, the Ministry of Health said on Saturday.

The practice, where heat or air is used to create suction in special cups put on the body, can now be used alongside standard methods of treatment, said a Ministry of Health and Prevention spokesman.

The UAE is the first country in the region to permit and license cupping as part of a complementary medicine programme, the spokesman added.

Under the new regulations, cupping treatments can only take place inside a licensed medical centre under direct medical supervision.

Cupping has long been believed to boost blood flow, reduce inflammation and remove toxins from the body, and even heal diseases by drawing out impure blood from the body. The resulting vacuum inside the cups raises the skin and the blood vessels, which can often leave blotchy, circular marks.

But many experts claim that cupping will not help boost your heath. Western medical commentators sometimes refer to the practice as “quackery” or “pseudoscientific”.

In response to sceptics, the ministry spokesman said there is no scientific evidence proving that cupping treats diseases. However, “what is true is that cupping helps bring down lactic acid, which is produced as a result of muscular efforts due to a lack of oxygen”, the spokesman said.

A US study in 2013 noted that cupping might carry benefits as a muscle relaxation technique, while a Chinese study two years earlier said that cupping’s long-term effects were “not known”.

Cupping might help treat certain diseases by stimulating the immune system, the health ministry spokesman added.

One form of cupping common in the Arab world is known as hijama, meaning “sucking”. The process involves tiny cuts made to the skin, and cups — often heated with fire — placed over the incisions. Blood, which practitioners claim is clotted and contaminated, then collects on the inside of the cups before they are removed.

Cupping has become more popular over the last decade. But the practice found fresh fame this summer from an unlikely source: the Rio Olympics.

Millions of viewers who tuned in to watch US swimming champ Michael Phelps bag five golds were surprised to see dark purple blotches on his back — the result of multiple suction sessions.

Other Olympics joined Phelps in claiming that cupping was the perfect solution for soothing muscles tired from relentless training.

Cupping also has celebrity fans. Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber and Victoria Beckham have all been seen with telltale purple patches.

While cupping is now allowed, the therapy should be avoided by some people, the health ministry spokesman said. Those include children, pregnant, the elderly, recent blood donors, and people who suffer from anaemia or fever.