Cupping is the the latest unproven therapy Olympians have turned to in the hope of winning gold

Michael Phelps is one of the 2016 Olympians who swears by cupping.
Michael Phelps is one of the 2016 Olympians who swears by cupping.
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder
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Despite how it looks, the U.S. Olympic team has not been attacked by a gang of octopuses. Athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alexander Naddour were sporting circular purple bruises during their competitions over the weekend, the result of cupping therapy.

Cupping originated in China, where it is considered traditional medicine and is used to treat everything from muscle pain and coughs to shingles. Specialized glass cups are applied to specific areas on the body, and then either heat or a pump is used to create intense suction to the skin. In recent years it has become a trendy therapy at acupuncture clinics in places like Hollywood and New York.

Gwyneth Paltrow was using cupping as far back as 2004, when the BBC noted her bruises caused a stir at a film premiere. Her acupuncturist explains in a Goop post that the practice “is a veritable panacea for what ails you.” Jennifer Aniston has also reportedly dabbled in cupping. Athletes in sports like rugby, football, and boxing all use the therapy, and it’s even become part of the treatment regimen for some members of the New York Mets baseball team. Chinese Olympian Wang Qun sported cupping bruises at the 2008 Olympics. Even the U.S. military is using the technique.

Some athletes take a DIY approach to cupping. Naddour told USA Today that he bought a kit off of Amazon that he uses on himself (sometimes with the help of a roommate). Michael Phelps has fellow teammates help him with cupping.

Chinese hospitals started using cupping to treat patients in the 1950s, but the practice has been around for over two thousand years. As suction is applied by the cups, skin is pulled up into the glass. Cupping advocates claim this helps blood flow and can remove toxins from the body. The procedure has also been compared to deep tissue massage, and some proponents say it improves muscle flexibility and relieves pain. The circular bruises that result are due to suction breaking tiny capillary veins in the skin.

The bruises are minor—and so is the likely positive impact on performance. Cupping might not be helping Olympic athletes prepare for competition as much as they think. A 2012 study reviewed over 100 clinical studies of cupping, only to conclude that cupping had a “potential effect” for some conditions, such as shingles and acne, and needed more testing for others. The New York Times highlighted two small studies of cupping that were inconclusive, noting it was difficult to determine whether cupping was actually responsible for perceived improvements. In other words athletes might just be getting a placebo effect.

But placebo or not, cupping isn’t banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organization responsible for keeping the competitions as fair as possible. Homeopathic treatments, acupuncture and herbal supplements are all allowed as well. American Olympic skiers Casey Puckett and Daron Rahlves both swear by hyperbaric chambers and magnetic pulse therapy to help recovery after a surgery. Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings frequently uses kinesio tape to alleviate muscle pain. Others are big proponents of drinking beetroot juice. Athletes will seemingly try anything if it’s within the rules and might give them a competitive edge.