What Are Those Marks on Michael Phelps’ Back?

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

traditional Chinese medicine cupping therapyMichael Phelps… Nineteen Olympic gold medals and counting… Twenty-three total Olympic medals… Suction spots all over his back…?!

It’s no surprise that the most decorated Olympian of all time has many admirers…but no, those aren’t hickeys on his back and shoulder.

Michael Phelps’ Pain Relief Secret

The marks you’ve been seeing on Michael Phelps’ back during the Rio 2016 Olympics are the result of a therapy called “cupping.”

Cupping is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that uses specialized circular cups to loosen up muscles. The cups are applied to spots on the body where treatment is needed. Then, heat or an air pump is used to pull the skin up and away from the muscle underneath to draw blood into the area to reduce soreness and accelerate healing in overused muscles.

Cupping for Chronic Pain

It’s not just Olympic-caliber athletes that can benefit from cupping; you can, too. If you’ve got chronic pain in your neck or back, for example, it may be an effective way to treat it.

A small study of 61 people—conducted in 2012—found that participants with chronic neck pain experienced less pain after 12 weeks of cupping therapy. They also had high measurements of overall well-being and reduced pain when pressure was applied to sore areas. These benefits were found to be comparable to—or perhaps even better than—progressive muscle relaxation (a technique where you learn how to control your own muscular tension). The benefits of cupping have also been studied on people with knee osteoarthritis with favorable results.

Although this research is promising, more work needs to be done to determine just how effective this ancient Chinese healing method really is.

How Does Cupping Work?

So how is cupping supposed to work? Some specialists believe that the pressure caused by the cups causes inflammation resulting in cytokines rushing to the area to begin the healing process. Cytokines are proteins produced and released by your immune system to help repair damaged tissue. And although it can be bad for your health to experience chronic inflammation and high levels of cytokines for extended periods, they are helpful when it comes to concentrated, short-term healing requirements.

Cups are only applied to the required areas for a few minutes, which is still enough time to rupture capillaries to create the bruising resembling hickeys that you’ve seen on Olympic swimmer Phelps.

If you’ve been suffering chronic pain in your back, knees, or neck caused by arthritis, injury, or something else, cupping might be something worth looking into.

Sources for Today’s Article
Lauche, R., et al., “Effectiveness of home-based cupping massage compared to progressive muscle relaxation in patients with chronic neck pain–a randomized controlled trial,” PLoS One, June 7, 2013; 8(6):e65378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065378; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23762355.
Teut, M., et al., “Pulsatile dry cupping in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee – a randomized controlled exploratory trial,” BMC Complement Altern Med., Oct. 12 2012:184. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-12-184; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23057611.