Cupping: Leaving its mark
What exactly are those mysterious marks on the bodies of Olympic athletes? Jo Waters investigates 'cupping' - an ancient form of therapy that is all the rage in Rio, while Aidan O'Doherty tries the trend for himself
All eyes were on swimming legend Michael Phelps as he climbed out of the pool after the 4 x 100m freestyle relay this week in Rio - and on the large, purple dots all over his shoulder. He hadn't fallen asleep on his medals, as one wit mused.
The bruises were left by cupping, a traditional Chinese medicine technique that has taken this summer's Olympics by storm.
Social media accounts have been buzzing with pictures of athletes displaying the marks, caused by blood capillaries rupturing under the skin.
Cupping - where glass cups are either pumped with air or heated inside by a flame and then applied to the skin to improve blood flow, promoting healing and muscle recovery - is proving particularly popular with the US team (the bruises were clear on gymnast Alex Naddour and swimmer Natalie Coughlin), but the technique has been used by Chinese Olympians for years.
Celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow are also fans of this alternative therapy, but the fact that top athletes are embracing it is giving the practice a new buzz.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that Olympics athletes are using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)," says Maria Maher of the AcuWell Acupuncture Clinic, which has branches in Athlone and Dublin.
"These athletes have huge teams of medical practitioners so it's not unlikely that TCM practitioners travelled to the Olympics with them."
Roscommon-born Tom Shanahan, who has a Professorship from Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine and is the founder of the Irish College of TCM (ICTCM), agrees. "One quarter of the world's population uses TCM," he says. "And there is a huge demand for these modalities."
TCM is becoming increasingly popular and, nowadays, cupping is also used by some physiotherapists, alongside more mainstream techniques. In one session of cupping, neck and shoulder pain can be reduced. It can also be effective in the treatment of conditions like lower back pain.
"In Chinese Medicine, our bodies are seen as one entire energy system," explains Maher. "The energy is called 'qi' and it flows along channels called 'meridians'.
"If there is a blockage in that system, that blockage manifests as pain. The aim of cupping - or acupuncture - is to get the energy flowing there again."
The treatment involves forming a vacuum using hollow devices and applying these to acupuncture points. This vacuum is created with either heat (fire) or suction. "The Chinese typically use bamboo," explains Shanahan. "We use bamboo too, although a lot of clinics use glass jars. The trouble with glass is that if you're not quick with your flame, you can heat the glass and hurt the client."
The cups are left on the skin for 5 to 15 minutes and the vacuum effect sucks up the skin, drawing muscle and soft tissue to the surface, as well as blood capillaries that rupture slightly. It promotes healing by drawing blood to the affected area and relieves tensions, sprains and tenderness in the muscles and tendons.
"Cupping treatment is never used on the face or a part of the body that is visible to the public," adds Shanahan. "If you leave it on for more than one or two minutes, it can leave what looks like a bruise. This can run the spectrum from rosy pink to red to dark red to purple - even to aubergine. If it's left on for too long - and has strong discolouration - it can take days to go down."
"They usually disappear in a few days," adds Maher. "However, I always ask women if they're attending a black-tie event or going on holiday in the days afterwards."
Shanahan advises that cupping is best used on "superficial complaints". "It affects the skin and the muscles. It is not systematic and it is not deep. It is specifically used for more recent injuries, the more recent the better. For example, it's an ideal treatment for a stiff neck in the morning, but not whiplash." Meanwhile, experts advise that cupping be performed with caution on pregnant women or people taking aspirin or warfarin to thin their blood.
It should also be noted that not everyone is convinced about the benefits of cupping. Rigorous scientific studies around the therapy is lacking and anecdotal reports and professional athlete testimony does not constitute evidence of an effect.
As Dr Martin Jones, a lecturer in sport psychology at the University of Exeter, puts it: "We don't fully understand the mechanisms by which it works and what the long-term effects could be.
"If I was working with an athlete and they wanted to try cupping, I'd advise them that they were delving into the unknown." © Telegraph