Olympics

Just a bruise: Olympic athletes such as Michael Phelps say ‘cupping’ therapy helps them win medals

Why team USA athletes have been "spotted" with cupping marks

Several Team USA athletes have been spotted (literally) with round purple or red marks. An acupuncturist says these are the telltale signs of an ancient Chinese medicine practice called cupping. She explains why elite athletes may find it useful.
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Several Team USA athletes have been spotted (literally) with round purple or red marks. An acupuncturist says these are the telltale signs of an ancient Chinese medicine practice called cupping. She explains why elite athletes may find it useful.

What are those strange purplish marks dotting Michael Phelps’ body?

Did he get into a fistfight with one of those Rio muggers everyone has been warned about? Was there an outbreak of leeches in the Olympic Village? Bad tattoos?

No worries. Phelps is simply an adherent of the latest recovery regimen for athletes and actors. It’s called cupping therapy.

Heated cups are placed on the skin, creating suction that stimulates blood flow. Cupping is supposed to provide natural healing benefits similar to those of massage on sore muscles, say practitioners of the traditional Chinese medicine technique. It’s also touted to relieve stress, reduce cellulite, aid in fertility and cure the common cold, especially in combination with acupuncture.

Phelps, usually cupped on his right shoulder and back, swears by it, as do swimmers Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin, the Chinese swimming team, U.S. male gymnasts, track and field athletes, NFL player DeMarcus Ware, tennis player Andy Murray, Victoria Beckham, Gywneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Ralph Fiennes, who don’t seem to mind the circular bruises temporarily left on their skin.

U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour bought a $15 cupping kit with an air pump on Amazon and said it has “saved me from a lot of pain.”

“That’s the secret that I’ve had throughout this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour said. “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

But plenty of medical experts deride cupping as “pseudo science,” “hogwash,” or a “celebrity fad.”

Edvard Ernst, author of “Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial,” says cupping simply causes an “above-average” placebo effect.

A state-run Russian TV channel took a swipe at Phelps’ devotion to the therapy, comparing its effects to those of meldonium, a drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency at the beginning of the year that was popular among Russian athletes. Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium in the spring and was banned from tennis for two years.

“Following the Hollywood trend, the method was adopted by athletes,” said one Russian report. “According to them, vacuum-based massage improves circulation and overall well-being, suggesting that muscle repair happens faster after physical exertion. In other words, the net effect from such practices in many ways is not unlike those of meldonium.”

A center with 12 therapists set up in Rio by St. Vincent Sports Performance of Indianapolis is providing daily treatment for U.S. diving, gymnastics and track and field athletes.

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