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But Phelps was not the only athlete showing such marks in this Olympiad: American gymnast Alex Naddour and swimmer Pavel Sankovich from Belarus also showed red circles in their backs and limbs. These enigmatic shapes respond to a treatment derived from Chinese acupuncture called cupping, which aims to improve blood flow and relieve muscle aches.
Fundamentals of cupping
Cupping therapy is based on the ancient theory of the Four Fluids or Four Humors, which promotes the need for the free flow of blood and chi— a form of vital flow whose interruption or stagnation could produce physical and psychological disorders. The treatment involves applying small suction cups on particular parts of the body to activate and mobilize the energy contained in them. It is used for different therapeutic objectives, from lymphatic drainage and beauty treatments to localized pain in muscles and joints.
The variant used in athletes—which leaves those red circles on the skin— is called “hot cupping.” To do it, the therapist puts a cotton ball soaked in alcohol inside the suction cup and sets it on fire. As the light goes out, he applies the cup upside down on the skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum which causes the skin to rise and redden as the blood vessels expand, stimulating blood circulation and chi in the treated area. It is considered that this therapy helps relieve pain, reduce inflammation and promote better muscle function.
Acupuncture as a factor in athletic performance
Acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular among athletes seeking a higher level of competitive performance. However, studies conducted by the scientific community and sports medicine specialists still have to show conclusive results of its effectiveness, but there is theoretical evidence that this practice could increase the range of motion by reducing restrictions on muscle and connective tissue.
One of the best-documented studies—conducted in 16 high-performance sprinters (five men and nine women), aged between 16 and 27 years—indicates that acupuncture improved their physical performance. The treatment would have provided a minimal improvement in the performance of dynamic force and power (P <0.05), a small but very significant improvement in high competition, where the results obtained depend on milliseconds. The study, “Efeitos da acupuntura na performance de atletas velocistas de alto rendimiento do Rio de Janeiro”, was conducted by Professors José Márcio P. Moon and Fernandes Filho, from the Castelo Branco University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ■