Connecting the Dots Between Michael Phelps and an Ancient Therapy

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michaelphelpsEven though he was back to his gold medal form in the pool on Sunday night, Michael Phelps looked like he was playing hurt. On his back and shoulders, which are pretty important for swimming, Phelps displayed what looked like giant circular welts. But, as elite athletes tend to do, Phelps invited this pain.

According to the New York Times’ Well blog, the dots are the remnants of a therapy known as cupping. It’s an ancient Chinese practice that coaxes blood to flow to the affected area. That can help muscles heal faster. Thanks to the wonders of social media, here’s Phelps getting the treatment long before Rio:

Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp 📷 @chasekalisz

A post shared by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

The therapists that perform the treatment use heat or air to create suction between the cup and the skin. It lasts for a few minutes, so it doesn’t hurt too much. But it’s enough to bruise. The Times says it’s basically the same kind of bruise as a hickey.

Other Team USA stars are also sporting the bruises, indicating it may be poised for craze status. But before you start donning the purple dots, be warned. This Eastern therapy isn’t scientifically proven. One researcher warned the Times of a “placebo effect.” NBC News talked to other researchers who said that more study is needed, noting that any positive results on “merely anecdotal.”



Stephen Babcock

Stephen Babcock is the editor of Baltimore and an editor-at-large of Baltimore Fishbowl.

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  1. Cupping is part of Chinese Medicine and every acupuncturist receives training in this therapy as part of 4 year degree. It is not just for elite athletes but useful for many conditions-Pain, injuries, to free locked joints, arthritis, whiplash, and expelling colds. It is used in conjunction with a diagnosis under skilled hands of acupuncturists. Some PT’s and massage therapists are employing in in their practice with little or no training. It is not explicit in their scope of practice but included in acupuncture licensing.

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