As the 2016 Olympians, especially swimmers, start competing this last week, people couldn't stop asking one question: Why was Team U.S.A swimmer Michael Phelps covered in dark red circles on his shoulders and back?
The perfectly circular bruises are bringing the world’s attention to an ancient Chinese healing treatment many athletes are using for a competitive edge.
“Cupping therapy” purportedly helps with muscular pain, respiratory issues and immune disorders, among other ailments, by targeting blood flow of a specific area. Olympic athletes use it to ease joint pain and muscle stiffness after training.
The process involves a heated glass cup that creates a vacuum when placed on the body. It sucks the skin up into the cup and increases the blood flow, releasing the tension in sore muscles.
Phelps is not the only Olympic athlete with red and purple blotches on his skin. U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour is also a fan of the alternative therapy.
“That's been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour told USA Today.
A 2012 research study shows that cupping therapy can potentially help treat shingles, but also suggested that more research in the area is needed. Athletes who use the alternative therapy swear by it and so far, there are no known side effects to it.
“It can be used on anyone, really, from Olympic athletes to a 59-year-old desk worker with back pain and stiffness. It can be used as a massage technique, it can stretch the tissue out, it can bring local inflammation to an area for healing, or even break up scar tissue after surgery,” Michael Mancuso, a physical therapist in New York City, told People Magazine. “What you've been seeing with the Olympic athletes is probably used to either warm up the muscles before an event, or to release tension afterwards.”
Other athletes, including U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin and Chinese swimmer Wang Qun, have also been pictured with similar marks on their skin — proving that cupping has indeed become the latest fitness trend among the athletes.
Find out more in the video above.