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The Mark of an Olympian: Why Athletes are Crazy for Cupping

matthealeyphoto / Instagram

matthealeyphoto / Instagram

During the 4×100 meter relay at the 2016 Olympics on Sunday, American swimmer Michael Phelps took to the water with purple, circular bruises scattered strategically across his upper shoulders. At the games, several gymnasts were also spotted with the same markings. The unusual sores were not the result of an intense game of paintball, but represent the aftermath of a traditional Chinese therapy called “cupping.”

Widely practiced in the Middle East (known as Al Hijama), cupping is a treatment that employs heated glass cups as suction devices. They are placed on various points of the body to draw blood to that area.

There are two types of cupping methods. The first is wet cupping, in which a small incision is made in the dermis. The cup is placed on top to draw out any toxic blood lying below the surface of the skin. The second—and the one Phelps opted for—is dry cupping. This method does not require any incisions.

In Islam, it’s believed that cupping therapy is a cure for every disease—if performed correctly. Chinese practitioners claim that it loosens muscles and encourages the flow of both blood and energy (qi), which in turn can cure insomnia, arthritis, and even infertility. Many athletes swear by cupping for its healing and pain reducing abilities. Cupping is also purported to have a positive impact on immunity disorders by promoting circulation.

The treatment is slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. When blood is drawn to the surface of the skin, capillaries rupture to create bruises that take about a week to heal. The procedure lasts for about 40 minutes, and should be performed regularly for lasting results. The ancient treatment is usually administered by a licensed practitioner at a spa or chiropractor’s office, although it’s safe to perform at home.

Cupping has gained popularity with a number of A-listers too, including Nicole Richie, Victoria Beckham, and Gwyneth Paltrow—all of whom have been photographed sporting the telltale, circular bruises. Yesterday, Kim Kardashian West took to Snapchat to tell her followers she would be trying the therapy in a bid to relieve the discomfort in her neck.

One study suggests that the technique has potential benefits, but there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support the treatment.

Homepage image: nataliecoughlin / Instagram

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