You may have noticed swimmers at the Rio Olympics with scary large red circles on their skin, including one of the greatest Olympians of all-time, Michael Phelps. The red circles are caused by cupping therapy, which is considered a pseudo-scientific treatment that dates back two millennia. Cupping is well documented in Greek and Egyptian medical practices as a way to alleviate physical ailments as well depression and anxiety. In fact, one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how ancient Egyptian used cupping therapy as early as 1,500 B.C.

How Cupping Therapy Works

Cupping therapy involves placing small glass cups on the skin with either a flame or an air pump to create suction, which pulls the skin away from the underlying muscle. The suction usually lasts a few minutes which causes capillaries to stagnate. This stagnation of blood is what creates the infamous red bruises that have become the talk of this year’s Olympics.

Reasons for Cupping Therapy

Cupping advocates believe the therapy releases blockages in the flow of energy and increases circulation in the body which helps athletes recover from injury. Practitioners claim cupping brings toxins in the body to the surface which reduces pain, back problems and general aches

Evidence to Support Cupping Therapy

Although many athletes and trainers swear by the effectiveness of cupping, there is no scientific evidence to indicate it has any physiological benefits. Doctors say any benefits experienced from cupping therapy is simply a placebo effect.

A study of 40 patients with knee arthritis found that the group that had cupping therapy experienced less pain after four month in comparison to a control group of arthritis patients that were not treated. The group that experienced cupping therapy knew they were being treated so the benefits may have been exaggerated and improvement may have come from alternate sources.

Impact of Cupping Therapy

The most noticeable effect of cupping is bruising. The coloring of the bruises range from light red to dark purple and can last anywhere from a few hours to three weeks. Darker coloring indicates there is a high level of toxins and stagnation in the section of the body. In this case, the marks can last for up to 21 days (or three weeks). If there are no toxins and the coloring of the bruising is a light, bruises can dissipate within a few hours.