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 acupuncture 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.

“Athletes train extremely hard for years, so they are not going to waste time on something that doesn’t work or may harm them,” says Dr Ming Cheng, associate professor of traditional Chinese medicine at Middlesex University.

“We are getting more professional sportsmen and women coming to us and asking for treatment.” But cupping isn’t just for use after extreme exercise – enthusiasts say it can be useful for common ailments such as back pain or stiff joints.

“Cupping is a modality of acupuncture and has been around for more than 2,000 years. It’s good therapy for musculoskeletal problems, particularly muscle strain and tension, neck pain, frozen shoulder, lower back pain, sciatica, sports injuries, tendonitis and tennis elbow,” says Dr Cheng.

“We treat everyone from young people with sports injuries to older people who’ve injured their back gardening or playing golf. We can also use it to treat indigestion.”

The treatment involves applying glass cups to acupuncture points on the body, he explains. “The cups are left on the skin for 10 to 30 minutes. The vacuum effect then 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.


“In Chinese medicine we believe that illness is caused by energy, or Qi, becoming blocked and cupping is one way of unblocking these. It’s very safe and the purple marks are bruises, not burns – no heat is applied to the skin.

“It is, however, very important that cupping is carried out by someone who is properly qualified – look for practitioners who are members of the British Acupuncture Council or the association of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This means they have had to meet professional standards.”


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