Why is Michael Phelps Covered in Red Welts?

While virtually all Americans — 99.7% — believe a healthy smile is socially important, most Olympians naturally sport a gleaming smile while standing on the podium receiving their medals. Who wouldn’t?

This year in Rio, though, the athletes are also showing off bright red polka dots on their skin.

These red dots are scars from the ancient practice of cupping, a technique said to be extremely helpful to stimulate blood flow and to speed up the recovery time for sore muscles.

The ancient practice, developed in China, has a rich history of about 2,200 years. There are even mentions of this healing technique in ancient Greek and Egyptian texts.
On top of other health benefits, it is believed cupping will restore one’s flow of ‘qi’ through their body, the life force responsible for every action we make.
The therapy consists of a specialist warming glass suction cups and placing them on the body. The placement of the cup creates a partial vacuum which relieves pain in a holistic way, and the red welts are a symptom of blood vessels bursting underneath the skin’s surface.

Olympians of all sports are hopping on the trend. Champion Michael Phelps, U.S. male gymnast Alex Naddour, former Olympic swimmer Natalie Couglin, and Belarus swimmer Pavel Sankovich all have polka dotted legs, backs, and arms.

While this practice may be beneficial for Olympians, there hasn’t been much study on the clinical effects of this treatment. According to CNN, researchers have found cupping to be successful for pain management, but there has not been any research completed with a large sample size to draw medical conclusions.

It is not painless either. Users have reported their skin feeling as if it was trapped in a vacuum, while lit on fire. But for Olympians, a gold medal seems worth it.


Photograph: Photograph: Lee Jin-man/AP

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