Top Swimmers Sport Purple Dots on Their Shoulders in This Year’s Olympics

If you followed the swimming events closely at this year’s Olympics in Rio, you may have noticed some purple dots on the shoulders of Michael Phelps and Cody Miller. Gymnast Alex Naddour had similar marks, leading reporters and viewers to wonder what they were. The marks are caused by “cupping,” a bodywork technique that has been embraced by many world-class athletes.

The Olympic Games created a buzz around the technique. Reuters says cupping therapy equipment sales rose by 20 percent in the three days following Phelps’ victory. The International Cupping Therapy Association (yes, it’s a real thing) says there was a “50 percent increase of healthcare practitioners seeking out their cupping certificates” over that period. Acupuncturists who perform the therapy report increased interest on the part of patients.

Cupping has deep roots. It was practiced in China as long ago as 400 BCE, and Egypt and other cultures in the Middle East have ancient records of its use. It is still used in traditional Chinese medicine in and out of hospitals.

Acupuncturists attach suction cups of various sizes to the body, and the suction draws blood near the surface of the skin. This creates the bruise-like marks. The purpose of cupping is to stimulate blood circulation, which speeds healing, lessens pain and reduces muscle soreness. Dr. Houman Danesh, a pain management specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says cupping “jumpstarts the body’s natural healing process.”

During a press conference, Phelps, the most successful athlete in Olympic history, said he has cupping done before most of his meets. Interviewed by USA Today, Naddour said cupping is the “secret that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

A 2014 review of sixteen studies on cupping suggests it reduces pain. The authors write:

Cupping combined with acupuncture was superior to acupuncture alone on post-treatment pain intensity… Results from other single studies showed significant benefit of cupping compared with conventional drugs or usual care…

This review suggests a potential positive short-term effect of cupping therapy on reducing pain intensity compared with no treatment, heat therapy, usual care or conventional drugs.

Researched published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2016 showed cupping significantly lowered chronic neck and shoulder pain, as opposed to no medical intervention. In the cupping group, the level of neck pain went from 9.5 to 3.6 on the severity score. Among the control group, pain was reduced from 9.7 to 9.5.

The study also showed statistically significant improvements in skin surface temperature and blood pressure, among subjects in the cupping group. Earlier research compared cupping to progressive muscle relaxation. Both treatments gave patients relief from chronic neck pain after 12 weeks, but the cupping group reported much greater well-being and higher pressure pain thresholds, compared to the group that used progressive muscle relaxation. A 2012 study saw benefits from cupping for people with arthritic knee pain.

Researchers have also found cupping offers potential benefits for herpes zoster, cough and dyspnea, finding the treatment was “significantly superior to other treatments alone in increasing the number of cured patients with herpes zoster, facial paralysis, acne and cervical spondylosis. No serious adverse effects were reported in the trials.”