Many people watching the Olympics this week have asked how U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps got those perfectly round bruises on his back.
They’re the tell-tale signs of an ancient Chinese therapy called cupping.
It’s practiced by some massage therapists and acupuncturists to mobilize blood flow to promote healing and relieve pain from inflammation and scarring, especially after an injury or surgery.
The therapy involves placing glass or plastic cups to the skin and, using a detachable pump, creating a suction that applies negative pressure to person’s underlying sore tissue.
Dark bruises can result, but they usually don’t hurt, said Abe Rummage, an acupuncturist at AcuCare Clinic in Denver, N.C.
“It’s like a hickey, basically,” Rummage said. “And everybody knows a hickey doesn’t hurt.”
Cupping is in vogue right now with Phelps and gymnast Alex Naddour at the Olympics, but it is also popular with some movie stars, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, who have been spotted on the red carpet with deep circles on their backs.
In general, practitioners of Western medicine are skeptical of the “anecdotal” health claims made by cupping supporters. But according to WebMD, a 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that cupping therapy may have more than a placebo effect.
“Like many alternative treatments, cupping therapy has not been extensively studied,” according to WebMD. “More studies are needed to prove or disprove claims of health benefits.”
Rummage disagreed, claiming there is “pretty good research on top of pretty good anecdotal evidence that if you use it properly, it works really well.”
He said he’s read that Olympic athletes are doing the cupping technique on each other, but he said it’s best done by a professional who has been trained in Eastern medicine. He completed four years of acupuncture training at Jung Tao School for Classical Chinese Medicine near Boone.
The best use for cupping, Rummage said, is for “anything that’s painful, inflammation, muscle tension, bruising.” Through the lens of Chinese medicine, he said those problems are caused by “stagnation of chi or blood,” and cupping works to “break up that stagnation.”
“When you do acupuncture, we’re using the flow of energy to break up the stagnation,” Rummage said. “With cups, it’s actual physical manipulation of the tissue. Even though it causes a little bit of bruising, it actually helps your body break up deeper bruises that have been caused by trauma,” such as surgery.
Phelps and other athletes use the treatment to recover after a hard workout, said Jeff Dugdale, associate athletic director and director of aquatics at Queens University of Charlotte, home of the 2015-16 NCAA Division 2 national championship men’s and women’s swim teams.
Dugdale said swimmers at Queens use a combination of therapies, including ice baths and cupping, to relieve muscle soreness after workouts. At Queens, the trainers perform the cupping procedure, he said.
“When we train hard, we have a lot of tissue and muscle breakdown,” Dugdale said. “You want to do everything you can to flush the lactic acid out. You want to bring blood to the muscles and tissues so you can come back tomorrow or the next day and have a great workout.”
While Dugdale said “there’s no real proven data” that cupping works, he said “it helps psychologically.… We don’t feel like it can hurt you, and it can only help.”