What is ‘cupping’ and why does Michael Phelps have purple spots on his back?

Why does Michael Phelps have purple spots on his back?

RIO DE JANEIRO (WCMH/AP) — Michael Phelps woke up on the morning of the first race of his fifth Olympic Games with some soreness in his right shoulder.

At 31 years old, the swimming superstar could not afford to have anything slowing him down. So he went to a Team USA athletic trainer for some cupping therapy, a treatment he has been receiving for years to help relax his muscles and ease soreness. “The trainer hit me pretty hard with one and left a couple of bruises,” Phelps said.

With large purple circles dotting his shoulder and back, Phelps delivered a performance for the ages to lead the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team to victory, giving him his 19th career gold medal. Phelps swam the fastest 100 meters of his life, a blazing 47.12 seconds on the second leg of the relay that turned a slim deficit in the race against France into a comfortable lead that teammates Ryan Held and Nathan Adrian were able to hold the rest of the way.

The stirring victory – televised in prime time back home in the United States – put Phelps back on the podium and thrust cupping therapy into the spotlight. It dates back centuries and has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance over the past decade.

And it’s not just for star athletes.

Stacey Kent is Clinical Director for the American Institute of Alternative Medicine in Columbus. “Right here in Central Ohio, acupuncture is huge now and cupping is used in conjunction with that all the time,” Kent said. “We do a fair amount of cupping on a day to day basis, week to week, cupping people for all kinds of things. So it is more popular than what you would think.”

The treatment involves applying glass or plastic cups to the area of discomfort and either applying heat or suction to create a vacuum. The suction pulls the skin away from the muscle and draws oxygenated blood to the area. The suction also is what causes the bruising.

Kent says cupping therapy allows muscles to function as freely as possible by separating layers of skin, fat and muscle tissue. “It releases any sort of muscular tension plus it increases your circulation within the muscle group and will allow for optimum performance of that muscle,” Kent said.

Health spas often offer the service for a few hundred dollars and the cups can be purchased online for as little as $15 and applied at home.

Some in the medical community believe it’s nothing but hocus pocus, the latest form of snake oil that tricks patients into paying for it again and again. Others insist that it aids recovery, relaxes muscles and helps an athlete maximize performance.

Phelps certainly believes in it. In the end, that may be all that matters. “I’ve done it before meets at pretty much every meet I go to,” he said.

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