Viewers watching the Olympics this past week may have spotted unusual pepperoni-like bruises on several U.S. athletes, including U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour. The deep-purple circles are signs of an ancient Chinese healing technique used to relieve pain called “cupping.” Although the therapy has mostly been used in Middle Eastern and Asian countries, numerous U.S. Olympic athletes have started using the ancient therapy, making it one of the most buzzed about trends of this Summer Olympics.
According to CNN, cupping therapy consists of having placing heated round glass suction cups on sore parts of body. The placement of the small glass cup creates a partial vacuum, which is thought to stimulate muscles and blood flow, while relieving soreness and pain.
The suction cups leave behind circular bruises, like the ones Phelps sported Sunday night in the men’s freestyle relay finals. The basic idea is that creating bruises will encourage the body to heal more quickly in those targeted areas, a process best described as a “controlled injury.” The cupping marks generally fade between two to four days.
Phelps is not the only athlete gravitating towards cupping. The therapy is also popular among members of the USA track and field team, according to Ralph Reiff, a sports performance expert who works with more than 100 members of the current U.S. Olympic team. “It’s very much common in our practice,’’ Reiff told USA Today. “We’ve found it to be an effective alternative therapy to add to our toolkit of resources.’’
The ancient Chinese therapy dates back over 2,000 years as a technique used to restore the flow of a person’s “qi” – the life force. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, bodily ailments are said to be caused by poor energy flow, a condition called “energy stagnation.” Cupping stimulates that energy flow and helps the body heal itself.
While cupping has been a common pain therapy treatment throughout Eastern cultures for thousands of years, it is still a rare practice in the United States. Given the Western world’s relative lack of interest and experience with cupping, few rigorous scientific studies exist on the technique’s potential benefits, or how it actually affects the body. However, the therapy is generally believed to be safe, according to research published in 2012.
Cupping is not the first health fad to sweep through the sports world. Past years have seen everything from kinesio tape to power bands. Though some of these therapies can offer benefits, they have been hard to prove and some experts have noted that they might work because of the placebo effect.