Fashion trends in the Olympic world come and go as quickly as world-record holding runner Usain Bolt. At one point, every athlete was sporting brightly colored athletic tape, highlighting their sore and tender muscles. Then athletes embraced activewear and encouraged everyone to look like we were training for a competition, even though most of us were merely picking up groceries.

But now that the Olympic Games have taken off in Rio de Janeiro, you may have noticed that several athletes, including aquatic star Michael Phelps, have been spotted with purple circles along their backs and shoulders.

This trend is known as cupping, and it goes way more than skin deep.

Diving into cupping 101

Cupping is a type of alternative therapy that originated in China thousands of years ago. It involves placing cups on the skin to create a suction, which increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed. The suction act facilitates healing with blood flow, as well as the flow of “qi” in the body. Qi is a Chinese word meaning “life force.”

This can relieve muscle tension, which can later promote cell repair. It can also help form new connective tissues and create new blood vessels in the tissue. People use cupping therapy to complement their care for a host of ailments and conditions.

What can cupping treat?

Cupping has been used to treat a wide variety of complications. It may be particularly effective at easing conditions that create muscle aches and pains. Since the cups can also be applied to major acupressure points, the practice is possibly effective at treating digestive issues, skin issues, and other conditions commonly treated with acupressure.

In 2012, the journal PLoS One published a review of cupping therapy that suggests its healing power may be more than just a placebo effect. The researchers found that cupping therapy may help with the following conditions, among others:

  • herpes zoster
  • facial paralysis
  • cough and dyspnea
  • acne
  • lumbar disc herniation
  • cervical spondylosis

The authors acknowledge that most of the 135 studies they reviewed contain a high level of bias, so more studies are needed to assess the true effectiveness of cupping. In the meantime, let’s keep a close eye on the athletes who take home the gold. If they’re sporting a collection of purple circles on their back, perhaps we could all plunge into the cupping craze.