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Gold Medals and…Purple Spots?

Cupping Accupuncture

On Sunday night, Michael Phelps won his nineteenth Olympic gold in the men's relay. As he donned his gold medal, the champion swimmer also sported several unusual, perfectly round marks on his shoulders. The marks are from cupping therapy, an ancient healing practice that Phelps swears by.

It is not uncommon for athletes to seek therapeutic alternatives to alleviate their pain. Acupuncture, massage, and mind-body therapies are well-known options and now that celebrities and athletes alike are turning to cupping, the technique is sure to gain popularity.

The technique itself derives from an ancient Eastern homeopathic healing practice. Today, specialized cups are placed on the skin over painful areas; heat or air pumps are then used to create suction between the cup and the skin, lifting the skin away from the muscles underneath. The vacuum causes capillaries to burst and blood flows to the area. The result is the circular bruises where the cups were placed and, according to the athletes who do it, pain relief and speedy recovery from injuries and soreness.

"Competitive athletes chase any advantage possible. One of the beliefs behind cupping therapy is that it increases blood flow to sore muscles and may speed recovery or help prevent injuries," said Jason Hawkes, MD, a dermatologist with University of Utah Health.

"It's no stranger than massage," said Robin Marcus, PT, PhD, OCS. But there is very little evidence for the efficacy of the treatment, Marcus pointed out. "However," she said, "it isn't expensive and doesn't seem to hurt anyone, so I wouldn't rule it out as a feasible method to relieve pain."

Marcus likens cupping to kinesio taping, which was seen on volleyball players at the 2000 Olympics. The athletic taping therapy didn't have much of a scientific foothold, but it gained popularity nonetheless.

"Kinesio Taping is an alternative to more traditional forms of athletic taping," said David Perrin, PhD, and dean of the University of Utah College of Health. "It is intended to promote joint stability, support muscles and tendons, and enhance proprioceptive feedback while not restricting normal range of motion essential to athletic performance."

As for cupping, Perrin said, "It falls into the family of alternative medicine, and is purported to enhance local circulation and promote healing, but there is no scientific evidence to establish its efficacy."

Though cupping has not been proven as an effective therapy for pain relief, at the very least, Phelps is enjoying the benefits of a placebo effect. Olympic gymnasts have also been seen dotted with the bruises. So if you happen to notice any other Olympians, celebrities, or friends covered in purple spots, don't fret; they've probably just caught on to this new therapeutic trend.

"This is a procedure mostly performed by alternative or holistic providers. The aesthetic results of cupping therapy are nothing to be worried about," explained Hawkes.