What Are The Red Spots On Team USA Athletes' Bodies?

| by David Bonner
Michael Phelps with suction therapy bruisesMichael Phelps with suction therapy bruises

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are helping to make an ancient Chinese medical practice famous.

Michael Phelps, member of the U.S. swim team, was seen on the Aug. 7 television broadcast with prominent red circles on all over his body. These circles are bruises caused by “cupping therapy,” which uses heated glass cups to create suction on the skin, reports USA Today.

Phelps and other U.S. athletes have been using the therapy to relieve tension in their muscles, as an alternative to traditional massage.

As explained by alternative health expert Mike Adams, “The suction of the cup pulls the skin and tissues up and away from the body. Unlike accupressure or massage therapy, which compresses muscles and tissues, cupping therapy decompresses by gently pulling tissues outward.”

Adams also adds that "if you leave these cups on any area of your body for more than a minute, they will produce a blood circulation pattern commonly called a 'hickey.' This is the suction of the cups pulling blood into the upper layers of your skin, and it's a natural part of the therapy. So don't leave them for long periods on areas of your skin unless you want others to see your cupping hickeys."

Olympic swimmers are not the only athletes who are trying cupping therapy. Professional athletes in other sports have been using it, too. For example, there has been a “proliferating of cupping” in major league baseball, reports The Wall Street Journal.  

"There's absolutely zero evidence that cupping has any kind of positive role in medicine," says Barrie Cassileth, the chief of integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The resulting bruises may be more harmful than the treatment itself, she adds. "I cannot conceive of any benefit except a psychological benefit,” she told The Wall Street Journal.

Athletes who use cupping therapy don’t seem to mind if the benefits are physical or merely psychological, because either way they believe it helps improve their performance.   

Vic Black, former pitcher for the New York Mets baseball team, noted, “The placebo effect is a lot more powerful than people realize."

Sources: USA Today,, The Wall Street Journal / Photo credit: NBC News via USA Today

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