What Are Those Marks on Michael Phelps?

The Summer Olympics are dominated by two must-see sports: swimming and gymnastics. Surely you’ve been watching Team USA Gymnastics’ Final Five women perform amazingly in qualifications and nab the gold in the gymnastics’ Team All-Around.

In all likelihood, you’ve also seen Olympic gold medal machine, Michael Phelps, swim a few times by now. No doubt you’ve been both impressed and equally puzzled by the swimming purple dots.

Rio Olympics Michael Phelps Cupping Therapy

The Ancient Healing Practice of Cupping

The gnarly-looking, raised purple circles on Michael Phelps are actually intentional bruises from the ancient tradition of cupping. It’s a Chinese healing practice that falls under the category of alternative medicine, but some people swear by its treatment results.

How Does Cupping Work?

Depending upon the specific practice of the therapist or technician, the cups may be made from silicone, glass, bamboo or earthenware (clay pottery fired at low temperatures).

There are two kinds of cupping: wet and dry. Generally, both begin in the same way and the cups are left on for around 3 minutes per application.

  • A flammable substance (i.e. certain herbs, alcohol or even paper) will be set on fire inside the cups.
  • The cups will be placed upside down on the skin after the fire goes out.
  • A vacuum-effect is created inside the cups as the air cools.
  • Blood vessels expand and the skin reddens, then rises.

Phelps receives dry cupping, which just uses heat to suction the area in the cup. There’s also wet cupping, which is a little more involved.

In wet cupping, after the 3 minutes is over and the provider removes the cups, a small scalpel is used to make tiny cuts in the skin. That’s followed by drawing a small amount of blood through another suction period.

Some people even have acupuncture needles inserted into the skin before being cupped. This is referred to as “needle cupping.”

What Are the Benefits of Cupping?

Cupping is said to center your life’s chi, which is responsible for the balance of all other aspects of your body and mind. Supporters say this manifests in the removal of toxins and a sped up healing process.

In Phelps’ case, he says he uses cupping to treat a Rotator Cuff injury. It provides him pain relief and allows him to continue competitive swimming.

Alaska-based acupuncturist Kristen Wood opened a practice that provides cupping, after stumbling into Oriental medicine for her own injury. She even favors cupping over massage, believing it can “go deep” with less trauma to the body. Wood tells her injured athlete patients that cupping can “loosen up the muscles and increase the circulation to help the healing process.”

Risks and Complications

All cupping will result in marks similar to those seen on Michael Phelps. The National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says in a 2009 report that it’s important for patients to explain the origin of these marks, “so that they will not be mistaken for signs of disease or physical abuse”.

Dry cupping can produce blisters and 2nd degree burns if the cup is too hot or done over the same area repeatedly without breaks. This can lead to infections.

Infections are seen more in wet cupping, because of the open wounds needed to complete the process. To prevent infections, particularly after wet cupping, providers will commonly apply an antibiotic ointment and sometimes lightly bandage the areas.

How is Cupping a Thing?

We are preparing a piece on the very interesting history of cupping for an upcoming post. The Chinese ancients kept meticulous records of their work. They felt great pride in their healing techniques and the need to pass on their unique knowledge.

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