August 10, 2016

What Is Cupping? Michael Phelps Swears By It, But Is It Safe?

Blog-Michael Phelps Cupipng Rio Screenshot

A screenshot from the swimming competition in Rio shows the marks on Phelps’ shoulders

By Adam Harris

If you have been watching the Olympics this week, then you have likely noticed some strange looking purple marks on Michael Phelps. These perfectly circular marks have been hard to miss on the highly decorated U.S. swimmer. The marks, what Phelps identified as bruises, could be spotted on his shoulders, back and legs. But where did these bruises come from?

Phelps and many other athletes competing in the 2016 Rio Games are using cupping therapy as a means for muscle recovery. But what is cupping, exactly?

Chris Jacobs, a Licensed Acupuncturist with Mission Health’s MyHealthyLife Wellness Services, is here to clear things up.

“Cupping therapy is one of the oldest folk medicine traditions, and is used in a lot of different cultures including Greek, Russian and many Eurasian nations,” said Jacobs. “Cupping is an element of acupuncture therapy, and is a common muscle recovery practice for many world class athletes. Using a suction cup powered by a hand-held manual pump, it creates suction on different areas of the body to bring more blood flow to the area and break up knots.”

So it makes sense that Phelps, who is exerting himself to his physical limit several times daily during the Rio Games, would benefit from cupping. “Swimming in cold water a lot, really exerting himself, his muscle fibers are tangled and torn up a bit, leaving knots. The cupping will break up the knots in one’s muscles,” said Jacobs.

But what about those bruises? Are those normal? Jacobs said they actually are normal, and they’re nothing to worry about from a safety standpoint. “The bruising is surface-level bruising, and is indeed common,” he said. “When I see bruising, it means that the patient needs the cupping therapy. I’ll see patients once per week and cup the same spot, they’ll start out bruising really strongly and then they’ll stop bruising altogether. Eventually, I’ll put the cups on and nothing happens, which means the person’s body is no longer as stuck.”

Jacobs added, “The bruising of the cupping shows that the body is not able to bring the blood flow right back into the system, so something is stuck and not moving. Frequent cupping will reduce the likelihood of those marks. Phelps is pushing his limit every day, in cold water, so he is probably going to bruise no matter what.”

As for any potential hazards of cupping, Jacobs said patients with certain conditions likely should avoid the treatment. “If you have any skin issues, you’re on blood thinners, have bleeding issues, diabetic neuropathy or certain conditions with rashes on the skin, those are conditions that you generally don’t cup,” he said. “There are chances that some people could have a bad reaction, but as a practitioner we are able to make the judgement call and recommend against cupping or use a more conservative method when appropriate.”

While world class athletes like Phelps are benefitting from cupping, Jacobs said the practice can provide relief for those of us with everyday pain as well. “I’ve seen cupping work on everyone from high-performing athletes to elderly patients lacking mobility, or postsurgical patients who’ve had cervical spinal fusion and lack mobility because the whole upper trapezius is becoming locked up,” he said.

“Normal, healthy people can definitely benefit from cupping because most of us have upper trapezius tightness and lower back pain from working at a computer.”

Chris Jacobs is a Licensed Acupuncturist with Mission Health’s MyHealthyLife Wellness Services.

For more information about the many versions, as well as techniques, of both acupuncture and massage through Mission Health’s MyHealthyLife Wellness Services, call (828) 213-8250 or visit