What Are the Purple Dots on Michael Phelps? Cupping Therapy

Alternative Medicine for Pain, Immunity & Digestion

United States' Michael Phelps competes in the final of the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You watched the Olympics, yelled at your TV as Michael Phelps and his 4x100M relay teammates took back the gold medal Sunday night, but you’re still left with one unanswered question: What the heck are those giant purple spots all over Phelps’ right shoulder?

The answer is simple: They’re bruises. But unlike normal bruises, these ones are actually a good thing.

The spots are the result of an ancient healing therapy called cupping.

Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a therapist puts special cups on your skin for a few minutes to create suction. People get it for many purposes, including to help with pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation and well-being, and as a type of deep-tissue massage.




The cups may be made of:

Glass
Bamboo
Earthenware
Silicone

Cupping therapy might be trendy now, but it’s not new. It dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. One of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how the ancient Egyptians used cupping therapy in 1,550 B.C.

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5 Benefits of Cupping Therapy (1)

Most of the validity of cupping as an alternative medical practice comes from its long history of use over the past 3,000 years. Cupping techniques have been used extensively to treat a range of disorders and symptoms, sometimes on their own, or other times in conjunction with other alternative practices. It’s common for cupping therapy to be used along with massage therapy, essential oils, acupuncture or even as an adjunct to “Western medicine” treatments.

What we do know from the limited scientific studies that have been done is that cupping works by expanding the capillaries and increasing the amount of fluid entering and leaving tissues. Besides this, cupping therapy seems to provoke a relaxation response in some people, which means it’s useful for lowering stress and its negative effects.




While there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence that cupping can be effective and safe, to date very few clinical studies using humans have been conducted, making it hard to “prove” many of the time-honored benefits of cupping therapy. That being said, it’s worked for millions of people over many years, so here are five ways that cupping might be able to help you:

1. Helps Reduce Pain

One of the most common reasons people turn to alternative treatment methods is because they’re looking for a safe way to naturally reduce joint pain and muscle pain. After reviewing dozens of randomized clinical trials testing cupping therapy in patients with pain of any origin, a report published in Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine found that cupping significantly reduced pain in people with low back issues compared to usual care treatments, showed positive effects in treating cancer pain compared with anticancer drugs and analgesics, and helped soothe pain associated with respiratory issues.

Cupping is thought to release tissues deep inside the body, relax tense muscles and ease stiffness associated with chronic back and neck pains, migraines, rheumatism, and fatigue. Some athletes have been known to use cupping therapy to naturally improve performance and reduce stiffness, muscle cramps, joint pains and scar tissue caused by injuries.

Cupping targets soft tissue by applying local pressure to pain points and areas of swelling. As blood flow increases within vessels and capillaries, tissues receive much-needed nutrients and oxygen. Cupping practitioners use pressure, heat, suctioning and needles above or below the site of injury, allowing for energy to travel along the “channels” (meridians) that pass through the injury.




For help lowering pain, cups are commonly placed over the following areas: over the fleshy part of the shoulder blades, over the groin/loins, by the neck (for soothing tension headaches, toothaches or migraines) or around the lower back.

2. Promotes Relaxation

It might seem counteractive, but cupping often helps alleviate physical complaints and allows people to enter a more relaxed state since it sedates the central nervous system. This is similar to acupuncture, which you might assume hurts and is uncomfortable but actually seems to help lower most patients’ stress responses and therefore offers protection against anxiety and depression.

How can cupping be relaxing? Just the act of laying still and being “taken care of” during cupping therapy sessions might have a positive effect on someone’s psychological well-being, which could be one reason why it’s used to lower mental illnesses. Once the cups are placed down and suctioned, they might need to remain still for up to 20 minutes, which forces stillness and silence on patients who might otherwise lead very hectic lives. According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, another reason cupping is soothing is because the cups help lift pressure in tense muscles, which offers a relieving sensation just like receiving a deep tissue massage.

3. Boosts Skin Health

Cupping is used to reduce herpes, cellulite, acne and skin inflammation. While studies haven’t shown it can necessarily help with weight loss, the fact that it tones and firms skin by improving blood flow and expanding capillaries makes it popular among celebrities and people in the spotlight who want to appear to have toned skin. As part of a skin-clearing or cellulite treatment, oil is commonly first applied to the skin before the cups are suctioned and moved around, bringing heat to the area along with various skin-healing ingredients depending on the type of oil used.

Because cupping improves blood flow and might help lower inflammation, some studies have found it to be equally or even more effective at treating acne compared to antibiotics. A meta-analysis of six studies showed that for improving acne, the cure rate of wet cupping was better than the cure rate following use of tanshinone, tetracyclineand ketoconazole prescriptions.

4. Helps Treat Respiratory Issues and Colds

Commonly used to help nourish the lungs and clear away phlegm or congestion, cupping therapy can be useful for speeding up healing time from respiratory illnesses like the flu or common colds. Cupping helps improve immune function by moving blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body, which is why it’s been associated with reductions in lung diseases (especially chronic coughs), allergies, infections and asthma.

Treating respiratory conditions like pulmonary tuberculosis is one of the oldest uses for cupping and was utilized long before prescriptions were available.




5. Improves Digestion

Acupuncture and cupping are both popular ways to improve digestion and reduce symptoms from disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This might primarily be because they can lower a patient’s stress response, which is highly tied to healthy digestive functioning.

Throughout history, cupping therapy has been found to be beneficial for people with frequent stomach pains, diarrhea, acute gastritis, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal diseases and water retention. For digestive disturbances, cupping is commonly performed in the following areas: around the navel, over the bladder, around the kidneys or over the stomach.

How Cupping Therapy Works (2)

According to Jennifer Dubowsky, a licensed acupuncturist and cupping practitioner, the purpose of cupping is “to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues.”

Cupping involves the use of cups applied to a patient’s back in a series of positions in order to produce suction. The vacuum effect targets areas of skin and deep tissue within the back, which is beneficial for dulling pain, breaking up deep scar tissue, and relaxing tender muscles or connective tissue. In this way, cupping is almost like the opposite of getting a massage since instead of applying pressure to swollen areas, it draws pressure out. For this reason cupping is often done in patients who experience chronic lower back pain, muscle knots, tightness due to anxiety, swelling or stiffness.

The most popular technique for cupping, called “dry cupping” or “fire cupping,” involves a trained practitioner first placing cups on the patients back and then carefully heating the cups using fire. Sometimes a special cupping “torch” is used to light the cups on fire safely, or in other cases the cups are heated in hot water or oil. The hot cups are sealed off and held in place for five to 15 minutes on the patient’s back while they cool down, which produces a vacuum effect. This is considered a type of “fixed cupping” because the cups aren’t moved around but rather sit still.

The cups contract while on the patient’s skin, which causes suctioning, so the skin is then pulled into the cup, stretching out skin tissue and improving blood flow, which facilitates healing. To light the cups on fire, normally a cotton ball is soaked in rubbing alcohol and then lit, placed into the cup very quickly and then removed. The cups are then placed down on the patient’s skin, and as oxygen is removed, suctioning naturally occurs. “Moving cupping” is similar but involves applying massage oil to the skin first, which helps the heated cups glide over tense areas on the patient’s back.




Back when cupping first originated, animal horns, clay pots, brass cups and bamboo were used to create the cups, but today cups are commonly made out of more durable materials, such as glass or heat-resistant plastic and rubber. The exact type of cup used depends on the practitioner’s preference and the patient’s condition. Cups come in different materials, shapes and sizes, which means some are more useful for targeting certain ailments than others. Nowadays, fire suction cups made out of glass and plastic are the most common, followed by rubber cups. Silicone, bio-magnetic, electric and facial cups are other options.

There are several different cupping techniques used by practitioners today. While cupping using fire is the most common type (usually called “dry cupping”), two less common practices are called “bleeding cupping” and “wet cupping.” Heated and then cooled cups are the traditional way to create suction, but the vacuum effect can also be created with a mechanical suction pump, which is used in most wet cutting techniques.

The terminology used to describe various cupping techniques can get confusing, but “wet cupping” is the name given to the method used most often in parts of the Middle East. Wet cupping, or “bleeding cupping” as it’s sometimes called, is always fireless but involves drawing the patient’s blood using a pump. Wet cupping involves “blood-letting,” usually by making a tiny incision into the patient’s skin before the cup is applied and blood is drawn.

In this technique, the practitioner creates suction with his or her hands and uses needles or a pump to remove a small amount of the patient’s blood, which is thought to improve energy in the body and remove toxins. Tiny pricking needles are inserted into the skin to draw three to four drops of blood before the cup is applied over the site. Or, a pump is used exclusively instead, which might be a “modern” type, such as an electromagnetic pump, or a more traditional pump that uses magnets and gravity.

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