If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you have likely noticed Michael Phelps and some other swimmers with large bruises on their backs and shoulders. And while many might be concerned for the swimmer’s health, there’s no need to worry, because those marks are actually a result of a form of Chinese therapy called cupping.
The therapy is gaining attention around the world with so many stars in the spotlight with these prominent marks. Dr. Brian Cunningham, a physical therapist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., is currently on the medical team for American swimmers at the Olympics and has worked with Phelps.
“The actual term for cupping is myofascial decompression (MFD),” Dr. Cunningham explains. “Myofascial decompression integrates eastern medicine tools with western evidenced-based movement patterns. Athletes who present with restrictions in movement patterns–especially due to adhesions or pain–can get this treatment.”
It works as an alternative to massage and acupuncture. The cups are placed at pressure points on the body to relieve muscle tension and pain. The therapy has been practiced in China for thousands of years.
“The main technique utilizes a suction cup,” says Dr. Cunningham. “The therapist places the suction cup on the area that is most restricted, and it is left on the affected area for 90 to 120 seconds. During that time, the tissues are decompressed, adhesions in the connective tissues are released, and blood flow to that area increases. Once the blood flow increases, the swimmer’s range of motion improves.”
As a result, the swimmer not only enjoys better movement, but he or she can also recover more quickly. Dr. Cunningham explains that quick recovery is especially important for Olympic athletes, because they swim multiple races in a short span of time. The faster they recover, the better their next race (or event) will be. He says these bruises can typically last two to five days.