The Rio Olympics are on, and you may have noticed many athletes photographed with large red circles on their skin.  Even Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, was photographed with those large red circles on his skin. Gymnasts and swimmers, mostly from Team USA, are also among the athletes seen sporting the mysterious dots.

Hijama Cupping Therapy Olympics
Photo by FootMassagez

Mysterious dots in Rio Olympics

The marks visible on Phelps’s skin as he competed in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday made people on social networking sites discuss what they might be. Some guessed that he might have been attacked by a giant octopus, or he might have been playing paintball.

These red dots are actually the result of a practice called “cupping.” Cupping, also called hijama therapy, is an ancient therapy in which heated cups are placed on the skin to dull pain. This technique is done by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup. The drop in temperature creates suction once the flame goes out, and this sticks the cups to the body.

The suction pulls the skin away from the body and increases the blood flow. This results in red spots, which typically last for three to four days. The cupping (or hijama) technique is a form of acupuncture, and athletes use it to ease aches and pains. Also the athletes say that cupping helps them recover from the physical toil of constant training and competing.

People who do cupping say that it helps with a huge variety of ailments like insomnia, fertility issues, pain relief, muscle problems, arthritis, and cellulite. The idea is to aid the flow of energy — also known in traditional Chinese medicine as “qi” — around the body and rebalance its equilibrium “ying and yang,” says Long, who has practiced cupping (or hijama) for 20 years. He says the darker the spots left by the cup, the poorer is the circulation of blood in that part of the body.

Is cupping useful?

Athletes use many other recovery techniques as well to dull the pain, like a sauna, compression garments, sports massage, ice baths, etc. But U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour told USA Today in an interview that cupping was better than any money he has spent on anything else.

Naddour said, “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy.”

It also saved him from a lot of pain, he added.

However, there are some people who are not happy with the technique. Pharmacologist Prof David Colquhoun from University College London told the BBC that the technique just pulls up a bit of skin and does not affect the muscle to any noticeable extent. He dismissed cupping as “hocus pocus.”

Athletes are not the only ones to use cupping. Gwyneth Paltrow appeared at a film premiere in 2014 revealing the hijama on her back. Even Victoria Beckham, Justin Bieber and Jennifer Aniston have been photographed with what look like cupping marks, says the BBC. Singer Lionel Richie tried it when his daughter Nicole Richie told him about the practice, but it is believed that the singer did not enjoy the therapy.