The Inertia

Those Red Circles on Michael Phelps’s Shoulders Helped Put More Gold Medals Around His Neck

There were a lot of constants in Michael Phelps’s appearances so far in his final Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The ever-present headphones, the focused stare (despite the antics of would-be foil Chad le Clos) and the impossibly long arms flapping back and forth like a bird of prey before each race start. Yet there was also a striking difference – those red circles that popped up on one of the 26 Olympic medal winner’s shoulders before his first race and then, as the competition progressed, spread to the other shoulder and across his broad back. This left the social media sphere all a-twitter about what the heck was going on behind closed doors. What was Phelps doing to himself to leave such marks?

The answer is less sinister than you might imagine. The bruising was caused by cupping, a therapy that has been used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for centuries. To find out more about it, we posed a few questions to Sue Falsone, the first female head athletic trainer in any American major league sport (Los Angeles Dodgers), owner of Structure and Function and author of the forthcoming book Bridging the Gap.

Why are Michael Phelps and some of the other US swimmers using cupping?

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Cupping helps with microcirculation in the areas where the cups are placed. If there has been an injury or soft tissue restriction in a certain spot, cupping not only improves blood flow to it, but can actually create new blood vessels. It can also help flush out toxins as the excess blood is removed from the area and the body is healing the bruising. It can also dilute inflammatory markers by bringing more blood to the area that has been cupped.

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Sue Falsone

What advantage does cupping provide over other soft tissue techniques?

Almost every other kind of soft tissue therapy is compressive. Cupping is distractive and pulls layers of muscle, skin and fascia away from each other as some tissue is sucked up into the cup. This creates micro-trauma that kicks the body’s healing mechanism into high gear. Cupping doesn’t replace other mobility work but can complement it.

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Other than improving circulation, what other benefits does cupping have?

Sometimes athletes get a buildup of interstitial fluid, that can cause secondary injury to healthy cells in that area. Cupping can help flush this fluid out. If someone has been struggling with pain, cupping can hit a kind of neurological reset button that helps reduce pain sensations. The mechanoreceptor stimulation that cupping causes is also believed to trigger the release of pain-blocking neurotransmitters in the brain.

Is cupping a one-size-fits-all method or are there different techniques?

With my clients I use three different techniques. If I have concerns over the athlete’s general physiology then I’ll use static-static cupping, in which I’ll place several cups on the patient while they’re still and leave them in place. For an athlete who has a fascial restriction I’ll lubricate the skin and then perform dynamic-static cupping, in which they’re still but I move the cups around slowly. Finally, if someone is having trouble restoring movement to a motion segment, I’ll try using static cup placement while they’re moving, such as doing Child’s Pose while cups are on their lower back to help a lumbar spine problem.

Will those nasty bruises go away?

Some people’s bruise patterns certainly get pretty colorful. But as the body responds to the micro-trauma the bruising starts to dissipate. Most athletes find it goes away completely in three to 10 days, depending on their individual physiology, general health and other factors. So no, Michael Phelps won’t be scarred for life by cupping!

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