FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — No, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has not been set upon by oversized leaches.
Those bruise-like circles clearly visible on the American star’s back and shoulders are from an ancient Chinese practice called cupping that is thought to relieve sore and tired muscles and give athletes one more boost on the competition.
“It’s kind of like a giant hickey,” said Laura Shahinian Kara, an acupuncturist who uses the centuries-old therapy at her Bethel and Westport locations. “Suddenly, it’s becoming this new thing. Everybody’s calling about it.”
Used for everything from anxiety to asthma to menstrual cramps, traditional cupping involves introducing a flame into glass or bamboo cups and then placing the heated cup on strategic points of the body, Kara said.
This creates suction and the skin is pulled into the glasses, pulling the tissue that surrounds muscles up with it, she said.
“It’s like taking pressure off a river,” she said. “It’s really good for blood circulation.”
The practice also can jumpstart the body’s ability to repair tiny injuries in the affected muscles, which is what’s making it attractive to more and more athletes, said Stamford acupuncturist Sarah Swanberg, who uses a form of cupping that involves plastic cups and a suction gun.
She said she first noticed the Chinese women’s swim team using the method at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, but she believes they’ve been using it well before that. Her patients started asking about it when American celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Justin Bieber, said they liked the treatment.
The tell-tale marks on Phelps and members of the men’s gymnastic team have brought it to the fore again.
“My phone was blowing up,” Swanberg said.
The practice has a similar effect to the brightly colored Kinesio tape some athletes use to reduce inflammation and relax muscles.
The marks don’t necessarily mean Phelps is cupping during the Games, said Olympia Dreszer, a licensed naturopathic physician in Stratford. Depending on the method and the patient’s health, the marks can last a few hours or up to two weeks, she said.
Cupping is often done in tandem with more widely known acupuncture, but some patients prefer to stick with the needles.
“It does leave a mark,” Dreszer said, “and not everybody wants to have marks.”