A professional is conducting cupping therapy on a patient.
Cupping therapy, an ancient practice, is in the spotlight as Olympic athletics show off perfectly circular bruises they get from the therapy. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

All eyes are on swimmer Michael Phelps as he goes for Olympic gold in Rio this summer, but some of us can’t take our eyes off the large, circular bruises on his shoulders and back.

Phelps and many other athletes are using a technique called cupping therapy, in which circular cups are placed on the skin, and then heated or pumped. This creates a vacuum that pulls the skin upward into the cup, breaking blood capillaries and creating round bruises.

Ouch. This is pain relief?

Yes, and it just may work, according to Phillip Adler, MA, ATC, manager of the Spectrum Health Sports Medicine program. Adler has used the technique on a few athletes and even tried it personally out of curiosity.

“It looks horrible—literally you are bruising the body,” Adler said. “But you’re doing it for a positive reason … It breaks down the scar tissue and increases blood flow to the area for its healing properties. The athletes I’ve used it on became bruised, but generally they felt better afterwards.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. It’s not new.

According to ancient manuscripts, the Egyptians may have used cupping therapy, which is related to acupuncture, as early as 1,550 B.C. It’s also seen in Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures, and it’s been used in hospitals in mainland China since the 1950s.

2. It’s a form of massage.

“Traditional soft tissue massage uses positive pressure, by pressing into the tissues, to increase the blood flow in order to promote a healing response,” according to Jodi George, DPT, Outpatient Rehabilitation Manager. “Instead of positive pressure, cupping creates negative pressure and lifts the tissues using suction from the cups.”

3. It can be dry or wet.

There are two types of cupping techniques: The dry method, embraced by Olympic athletes, only uses suction. With wet cupping, the practitioner makes small cuts in the skin to promote “medicinal bleeding.”

4. You won’t get this treatment in a traditional doc’s office—yet.

“Our profession is very evidence-based, we like to use treatments that have been thoroughly researched and that are proven to be effective,” George said. “But I wouldn’t want to discount its effects. Just because it is alternative medicine doesn’t mean it’s not effective for some people.”

5. This could signal a new trend.

After the 2012 Olympics, kinesiology tape, or K tape, caught on among athletes everywhere. The lightweight athletic tape, which looks like duct tape, lifts skin away from the muscle beneath it to increase blood flow, reduce pain and improve mobility. Cupping could go mainstream, too, especially as Phelps adds more gold medals to his collection.

6. It may be overrated.

Practitioners say cupping helps with issues ranging from muscle problems and pain relief to arthritis, skin problems, migraines, insomnia, asthma, cellulite and more. Others credit the placebo effect, noting there are no conclusive scientific studies proving it works.

A person's back is shown with bruises left by cupping therapy. The bruises are circular in shape.
Bruises left by cupping therapy are noticeable, especially to viewers watching Olympians swim. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

7. It’s not for everyone.

The British Cupping Society warns that cupping shouldn’t be used by pregnant or menstruating women, those with cancer or people with broken bones or muscle spasms.

8. It’s a Hollywood hit.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Justin Bieber, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and other celebs have been photographed with cupping bruises. Who knows? It could join tattoos as a fashion statement.

9. Beware: It’s not a do-it-yourself treatment.

“Could you get out the vacuum and do the same type of thing? Maybe, but I don’t recommend it,” Adler said. “You could hurt yourself—and do more harm than good—if you don’t know what you’re doing.”