Why the Weird Bruises on Michael Phelps Reminded Me of Summer Camp

When people think of summer camp, they do not normally think of science. Surprisingly, I learned a lot of science in the boy’s dorm rooms of my high school summer camp.  I mostly learned about the flammability of health care products. Our amateur experiments included the science behind an “Atomic Hickey”. To form an Atomic Hickey, a person would first rub toothpaste along a spot of their body. Then someone else would spray a small glass jar full of aerosol deodorant. The spray would then be ignited, and the jar would quickly be placed onto the toothpaste-covered spot (the toothpaste protecting from any residual heat). If done properly, the oxygen inside the jar would be completely consumed by the flames, creating a vacuum as the jar was firmly placed against skin. Removing the jar a few minutes later would leave the person with a discolored circle on their body. I never did one, but I do remember going to the beach the next day and watching some guys try to explain why their bodies were covered in circular bruises.

Fast-forward several years to this summer, and I was highly intrigued by all of the weird, circular marks on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. I mean each one looked like an Atomic Hickey, but I doubted that was what they were doing in the Olympic Village.

(Copyright NBC Sports)

It turns out that I was half right. The bruises were the result of a massage technique known as cupping or myofascial decompression (MFD), a Chinese technique dating from 281 AD. Cupping uses negative pressure to increase blood flow to targeted spots of the body as a treatment for stiffness, muscle pain, skin grafts, and other conditions. However, the suction can burst small blood vessels, leaving the bruise marks.

Now that Michael Phelps, an Olympian who literally breaks records shrouded in legend, has been shown to use cupping the popularity of the technique will likely increase. But even with increased attention, the big question remains; does the technique actually work, or is it the placebo effect? The placebo effect is where belief in the treatment heals the patient. You may recognize the term from stories of someone getting a placebo instead of a drug during a drug trial where the placebo is a sugar pill. The person who took the sugar pill may feel better just because they think they received the actual treatment. This allows scientists to test if a drug actually works.

To return to cupping therapy, there have been few large scale scientific studies to prove that cupping therapy produces the desired treatment outcomes it is purported to do. There is some evidence that the claimed treatment outcomes are the result of the placebo effect, but also some evidence that cupping does in fact help relieve pain. This means that the benefits of cupping are not currently well characterized, and although it is still classified as “alternative medicine” at this time, it could mean that cupping may eventually prove to be a viable treatment. Scientific study has both supported and rejected many treatments that would be considered “alternative medicine” . Hopefully, this Olympics exposure will support more scientific study of cupping therapy on a large scale, or at least provide a good excuse for kids goofing around at summer camp to continue the tradition of the Atomic Hickey.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com

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