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Dots On Michael Phelps' Back Are Signs Of Cupping: What Is This 'Healing Technique'?

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Michael Phelps not only showcased his swimming prowess when he snatched his 19th gold medal at the Rio Olympics on Sunday, Aug. 6, but he also put a spotlight on a therapy called "cupping."

As Phelps swam his way into victory, noticeable purple dots could be seen on his shoulders, back and right arm. These purple dots could be mistaken for a new tattoo, but they're actually marks left behind by cupping — a technique that is quite helpful for athletes.

What Is Cupping?

Cupping is a therapy that helps athletes relax and recover their muscles so they could perform their best at events.

According to The New York Times, cupping is actually an ancient healing practice — with roots from China, ancient Egypt and the Middle East — that creates suction between the heated cup and the skin.

With this technique, a therapist heats several small glass cups, places them on the skin and pulls them from the body to loosen the muscles. The suction typically lasts for only a few minutes, but it's enough to cause the capillaries beneath the skin's surface to rupture, producing the circular bruises.

But Is The Technique Effective?

Some experts appear to be skeptical of the technique's efficacy in treating sore muscles, but Phelps seems to trust the therapy.

On Monday, Phelps was asked about his experience with cupping. He said he requested for a little cupping before his event on Sunday because he "was sore" and the trainer hit him hard, leaving a couple of bruises.

"I've done it before meets, pretty much every meet I go to," said the 31-year-old swimmer, who competed at his fifth Olympics on Sunday.

In terms of physiology, cupping is thought to draw blood to the affected area to reduce soreness and speed up recovery of stressed muscles.

Indeed, athletes like Phelps who swore by the therapy say it keeps them from getting injured and accelerates recovery.

Phelps, whose dotted shoulders were seen at the Olympics, was even featured in a cupping treatment in a recent video for a sponsor.

The athlete also posted a photo on Instagram where he was stretched on a table as his teammate Allison Schmitt placed pressurized cups along the back of his thighs.

Keenan Robinson, who trains Phelps, says the athlete has been practicing the technique for a long time to feel good.

But he says that with anything one does to make the body feel good, there has to be an "educational assessment."

Although there is still no research to prove that cupping can enhance an athlete's performance, past studies have shown that it may be a complementary therapy for migraines, chronic pain and facial conditions.

When compared with other practices, cupping may likely be as effective at relieving certain medical conditions.

However, all these findings should be taken with a grain of salt because none have been tested against a placebo control yet.

In 2012, a study of 61 people who had chronic neck pain tested cupping against a therapy called PMR or progressive muscle relaxation.

Through PMR, a patient intentionally tenses his muscles and concentrates on relaxing them. Half of the participants practiced PMR, while the other experienced cupping.

In the end, both groups reported similar reductions in pain levels after 12 weeks.

And although the cupping patients scored higher on measurements of well-being and experienced less pain when pressure was applied to the neck, researchers of this study noted that more investigations must be done to determine the benefits of the practice.

The Placebo Effect

Before anyone can conclusively recommend cupping, however, high-quality trials with placebo control groups must be conducted. This is important in order to establish whether cupping is actually effective or its placebo effect is so strong that it can alter the perception of pain. Still, athletes like Phelps may unlikely wait for those results if the effects of the therapy seem evident.

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