With concerns over the quality of the water in Rio de Janeiro during the Summer Olympics, complete with warnings to rowers not to swallow it, casual observers may have been alarmed to see a number of large red circles on the upper body of Michael Phelps.
Fox Sports asked in jest whether it was “the world’s biggest, most concentric chicken pox or a Gatorade bottle had given him a hickey.”
In reality, the mysterious bruises are from “cupping therapy.”
Fox Sports explains:
It’s called cupping therapy, a Chinese (or Egyptian, depending on who you believe) medicinal practice that dates back thousands of years. It works pretty much in that Gatorade hickey way. Back then, cups were made of glass and, inside them, a flammable material was set aflame. When it went out, the cup was placed on the subject’s body creating a vacuum as it cooled. These days, there is a pump that mimics the process, leaving temporary bruises on the body. (You’d imagine Phelps had used that. It’s hard to picture Bob Bowman lighting matches in the ready room and sticking silicone cups to his swimmer’s pecs.)
According to Swimming World, the process works to help athletes recover from brutal practices and multiple event in a short span of time.
“Cupping employs suction to tug on the tightest muscles, stretching the fascia,” the swimming magazine noted. “The vacuum lifts the skin off the muscle or bone, allowing the blood vessels to expand and more blood to flow to the targeted area. Increased blood flow is believed to help the body recover faster.”
And while there may be some debate over how helpful cupping is, there’s little disagreement that the post-therapy appearance of swimmers is downright medieval, as seen here with twelve-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin:
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