Michael Phelps’ Cupping Therapy Starts An Olympic Trend

While watching the Rio Olympics, many viewers pointed out that most of the swimmers, including the celebrated athlete Michael Phelps, were sporting large circular scars on their body. Most were confused, but before long, the dark red splotchy bruises that looked like lesions from a disease were explained by the NBC commentators.

We now know that these aren’t legions from a specific disease, but rather they’re marks from a therapy called cupping. What is cupping? It didn’t start with Michael Phelps, but it might as well have. Cupping is an ancient therapy started in Middle Eastern and Asian countries, specifically in China.

Cupping is when a therapist uses a warm, round, glass suction cup and applies pressure on the skin using the cup to specific parts of the body. For swimmers like Michael Phelps, it releases any pain that he may sustain while swimming. This is why swimmers, in particular, have polka dots on their arms and back. It’s also said that cupping creates blood flow, which is key to releasing tension.

While it’s one of the things that’s taking a spotlight in the Olympic pool, this isn’t the first time that cupping has trended. Celebrities like Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, and Gwyneth Paltrow have used cupping for various reasons.

A few years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow turned heads when she was snapped at her New York City film premiere with spots on her body. Paltrow explained in an interview with Oprah Winfrey the process she went through, which sounds similar to Michael Phelps’ cupping therapy.

“They take these little glass cups and they heat them up and they put them on your back. Those [marks] correspond to my lungs, those [marks] correspond to my breasts. And if you have stagnation, any kind of toxicity in the corresponding organ, it pulls the stagnation and the toxicity out through that point.”

Seeing cupping is one thing, but how does it feel? Paltrow went on to explain the experience.

“It feels amazing and it’s very relaxing, and it feels terrific. It’s just one of the alternative medicines that I do instead of taking antibiotics.”

Now that we’ve hyped up cupping, does it actually work? Paltrow insists that it does, explaining, “I have been a big fan of Chinese medicine for a long time because it works.”

However, in the case of Michael Phelps, he was an exceptional swimmer before he used cupping. That said, a study shows that he may be on to something. According to a 2014, medical study by the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences cited that short term pain was reduced in patients that used the practice.

An additional study proved that this treatment worked.

Newsweek writes:

“[A study] conducted in March, used cupping on half of 60 patients with neck pain. It found that those who underwent the process reported significantly less pain than those who didn’t.”

The Olympic swimmers aren’t the only athletes to use cupping as a source of therapy. Some members of the Kansas Royals baseball team used cupping prior to Phelps making the ancient tradition modern. Joakim Soria says that he’s used the therapy for years and seems to live by it.

He told KansasCity.com, “You can feel it. You’re going to feel better the next day.”

Even though Michael Phelps said that he trained harder than ever for the games in Rio, perhaps now he has another element to improving his time in the pool? With 22 gold medals and 26 medals overall to his name, no one can really argue that the therapy can’t hurt him.

If you want to see Michael Phelps go through a cupping session, watch his Under Armour commercial below.

[Photo by Lee Jin-man/AP Images]