The Olympics are happening and Michael Phelps is causing headlines. The sky is also blue.
Phelps captured gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time. However, he is also causing some commotion because of huge dark red circular marks on his right shoulder. The bruises are the result of one of the newest healing and recovery trends for athletes: cupping therapy (which may be new for athletes but is an ancient practice in some cultures).
Cupping therapy treatment creates hyper-localized suction on an athlete’s body. The hope is to help mobilize blood flow, drawing more blood to over-used muscles to help relieve muscle pain and promote faster healing.
Phelps isn’t the only one using this technique. Fellow U.S. Olympic teammate, gymnast Alex Naddour and many others are utilize cupping therapy.
There are two different forms of cupping therapy, heating and mechanical. Both forms hope to produce the same healing and therapeutic results. Using either an air pump or heat, the glass cups create suction between skin and the cup. Skin is then pulled away from muscles. This suction is what causes the visible circular marks.
Why does Michael Phelps have purple spots on his back? https://t.co/9Rp23Nl9sR pic.twitter.com/xEUzpRygPU
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 8, 2016
Cupping therapy is normally preformed by an acupuncturist or a chiropractor using methods that date back to ancient Egypt and China, as early as 1,550 B.C. The modern version uses medical-grade silicone cups that are most often left on for about ten minutes. The therapy is not very painful, only causing some mild discomfort due to the tightening of the skin. Most of the bruising and marks disappear after four or five days, but they can last for up to three weeks.
So the big question: does cupping therapy really help athletes?
Anecdotally, athletes who use cupping therapy swear by the results. Naddour has been using cupping to help reduce pain for years. Phelps has utilized the therapy for the last year during his preparation for Rio.
Proponents of cupping claim that it helps reduces muscle pain and inflammation, while helping relax the body. However, the science to back up these claims is not 100 percent reliable. There have been multiple medical studies conducted regarding the validity of cupping therapy with no conclusive results.
Some doctors even believe that it is dangerous, especially when done without proper training – Naddour does the cupping himself, after buying a starter kit online.
Whether the science is there or not, Olympic athletes are using cupping therapy. But will this prove to be just another expensive body healing and recovery fad?
That can't be comfortable ? #Rio2016 pic.twitter.com/V8MyXfjT4f
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
Over the last five years there have been a lot of sports medicine trends that simply do not have the full support of the medical community. Elastic Kinesio tape, which claims to help minimize pain and support muscles without limiting movement, was all the rage at London 2012. But there is still little hard evidence that it works.
We have also covered cryotherapy extensively over the last few years. Like cupping therapy, it has been used for years outside of the limelight of professional sports and the Olympics. The validity of the medical science is not conclusive just yet, but many high profile athletes claim the results are real.
Although the science isn’t completely settled, it is clear that cupping therapy is here to stay, at least for now. Phelps is one of the best and most famous Olympic athletes of all-time, and if he adopted the method this late into his domination of the swimming world it cannot just be pseudoscience, right?