Something besides his record number of Olympic medals has people talking about Michael Phelps at the Rio Games: What are those perfectly round, purplish marks on his body?
They're evidence of the superstar swimmer's belief in an ancient Chinese technique called cupping, which is touted as a way to ease sore muscles.
Phelps told reporters he has used the technique for years before meets. While other athletes and celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow have also sworn by what they say are improved healing times, there is little scientific evidence to back them up.
The practice involves putting special cups on the skin, and heat or an air pump is used to pull the skin up slightly for a few minutes. This can rupture the capillaries, thereby creating the bruises seen on Phelps' shoulders as he competed in Rio.
Phelps' trainer told the New York Times that a placebo effect may be partly to thank for the benefits the swimmer claims. “There is a psychological component where Michael has been doing this to feel good for a long time, about two years,” Keenan Robinson said. “Anything you can do to get the body to feel good—you have to use an educational assessment on it. You have to make sure that what you're doing is causing a physiological intent to recover.”
Others don't buy it.
“Cupping is ridiculous. There's no scientific or medical evidence that it provides any benefit,” Steven Salzberg, a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in Forbes.
He dismissed cupping as one of wave of “new wackadoodle performance enhancement fads.”