Cupping: The Eastern Practice Embraced by Michael Phelps and Hollywood Types Explained

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Michael Phelps

Here, a primer on the therapy technique that was first introduced in Chinese medicine.

All eyes were on Michael Phelps on Sunday when he led the U.S. team to win gold in the 400 freestyle relay. But that's not all. The Olympic gold medalist had everyone staring at his back — and the giant purple dots there — too.

The circular patterns, it turns out, are a result of cupping, a therapy that helps with circulation as well as shoulder and neck pain. It's also said to detox the body.

The ancient Chinese practice, which involves the heating of small glass cups that are then placed on the skin and used as a suction device, is said to have started as far back as 300 A.D., as documented in famous herbalist Ge Hong's book A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. Though there are many benefits to cupping, academic literature also states that side effects can include red marks, swelling, bruising and panniculitis (inflammation of the fatty layer underneath the skin).

CUP RUNNETH OVER: Jennifer Aniston at the Call Me Crazy premiere in Los Angeles on April 16, 2013. (Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)

Nonetheless, it's a medical technique that's long been practiced by Phelps (he's even seen being cupped in an Under Armour video ad), as well as some in Hollywood. Early adopter Gwyneth Paltrow was first seen embracing the practice in 2004. Jennifer Aniston appeared at the Call Me Crazy premiere in 2013 with cup marks on her back. Justin Bieber took a selfie in February that suggested he had gone through cupping therapy on his chest.

Beverly Hills osteopath Vicky Vlachonis, who applied the cupping method on Paltrow, told The Hollywood Reporter last December that she uses "the musculoskeletal system as a decoder ring to diagnose body dysfunction."

LOOK BACK AT IT: Gwyneth Paltrow at the Anchorman premiere in New York on July, 7, 2004. (Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage)

In addition to Vlachonis, who counts Cameron Diaz and Katy Perry as clients, a number of wellness centers in Los Angeles also offer the service.

The Meridian Health Clinic in Santa Monica offers cupping sessions (prices are currently unavailable online); DTLA's The Springs does fire cupping (where glass cups are used to create a localized pressure that are then used as a vacuum on the skin) for 60 minutes at $100 per session; and a 60-minute visit  with Golden Folk's Sonya Schwartz in Silverlake costs $80 (with an acupuncture add-on available for $15).

As with any medical practice, it's always advisable to ask questions before participating in the ritual.