Michael Phelps Rio 2016 Chinese Cupping Therapy Strategy: Key to Success or Placebo Effect?

Photo Credit: KCS Presse / Splash News
Michael Phelps Rio 2016 Chinese Cupping Therapy

Photo Credit: KCS Presse / Splash News

Michael Phelps is an Olympic god. He is currently dominating at the Rio 2016 Olympics, but there is something noticeably different about the swimmer’s physique.

Photos of the athlete plunging into the pool reveal some purple dots on his body. What’s going on here? Well, it turns out that Phelps undergoes what is known as Chinese cupping therapy.

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps – Men’s 200m Butterfly Final – Olympic Games RIO 2016. Credit: KCS Presse / Splash News.

Michael Phelps Men's 200m Butterfly Fina

Michael Phelps – Men’s 200m Butterfly Final – Olympic Games RIO 2016. 08/09/2016. Credit: KCS Presse / Splash News.

What Is Chinese Cupping Therapy?

Chinese cupping therapy is an ancient healing method that is currently being used at the Rio 2016 Olympics to aid athletes’ recovery. Phelps’ trainer, Keenan Robinson, says that there is nothing really special about it as it’s been used for centuries.

How cupping therapy works is,it starts with practitioners or the athletes themselves placing specialized cups on the skin. Then heat or an air pump is used to create suction between the cup and the skin, and the skin pulls away from underlying muscles.

This goes on for a few minutes and the capillaries beneath the skin begin to rupture, which creates some bruising—hence the purple spots seen on Phelps. These spots are very similar to what it would be like if someone gave you a hickey!

Cupping is believed to draw blood from afflicted areas, which thereby reduces soreness and speeds the healing of overworked muscles. Cupping therapy for muscle pain is popular among athletes, and many of them swear by it. They say it keeps them injury free and also accelerates recovery.

Back in 2015, Phelps posted an Instagram photo of himself stretched on a table while Olympic swimming teammate Allison Schmitt placed several pressurized cups along the back of his thighs.

Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp ? @chasekalisz

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

Psychological Component to Cupping Therapy

Phelps’ trainer Robinson also notes that there is a psychological component to cupping therapy. Michael Phelps’ Chinese cupping therapy treatments have been ongoing for about two years, and the reason he sticks with them is because they make him feel good.

Does this mean it’s all a placebo effect? That is unknown. While many athletes, coaches, and trainers strongly believe in the treatment, there has not been much scientific research on if it has a real physiological effect. However, is that to say the placebo effect is a bad thing?

There have been studies done on patients with chronic pain who underwent cupping therapy vs. those who underwent a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR.Those who tried cupping therapy scored higher on measurements of well-being and felt less pain when pressure was applied to previously sore areas.

According to Leonid Kalichman, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, who also co-authored a commentary reviewing cupping research in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies:“A placebo effect is present in all treatments, and I am sure that it is substantial in the case of cupping as well. A patient can feel the treatment and has marks after it, and this can contribute to a placebo effect.”What swimmers say about cupping therapy is that it is helpful.

Celebrities who use cupping therapy for pain reliefinclude Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow, who have also been photographed with cupping marks on their skin.

Chinese cupping therapy: what do you think?

Reynolds, G. and Crouse, K., “What Are the Purple Dots on Michael Phelps? Cupping Has an Olympic Moment,” The New York Timesweb site; August 8, 2016; http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/what-are-the-purple-dots-on-michael-phelps-cupping-has-an-olympic-moment/?_r=0, last accessed August 11, 2016.