The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals players were into cupping long before Michael Phelps made it famous

The dark purple spots on Michael Phelps' shoulders shed light on cupping therapy. (Video: Reuters)
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DENVER — They will forever be known as the splotches that launched a thousand Google searches, the marks that made millions tilt their heads to the side and ask, “What the heck are those?,” the purplish red blotches only Michael Phelps could make cool, signs of a treatment called cupping that shocked a world unfamiliar with its unsightly effects. An explosion of explanatory articles popped up: “What is cupping?” “Why do athletes use cupping?” “The most decorated Olympian in millennia uses cupping, should you?”

About those purple spots on Michael Phelps’s body…

An overreaction built on Phelps’s fame? Perhaps. But part of the beauty of the Olympic Games, beacons of human achievement that they are, is the podium they provide for the newest, most innovative ideas in global sport. Like cupping, for example?

“I mean, I want to say that’s a pretty ancient technique, right?” Washington Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth said. “Like, thousands of years old?”

Correct. Cupping dates much further back than even the Olympics — as far as 3,000 B.C., some say. Historians trace its use to ancient China and in other ancient Mediterranean cultures. Considered a form of alternative medicine, cupping is enjoying a surge of exposure thanks to bare-chested Olympians this month in Rio. But the riveted reaction to those dark, circular, painful-looking marks on Phelps’s body was almost laughable in baseball clubhouses where players — particularly pitchers — have been cupping for…

“Years,” said first baseman Clint Robinson, palms facing upward as if to say what’s the big deal. “… I had a neck issue going on this year. I did it, I went home, and my wife said, ‘What in the world?’ It looks gross. But it’s been going on for a long time. It’s no big deal any more. First time I saw it, I think I was in [Class AAA] a few years ago. I was like … what are these things? They just look like you’re gonna milk a cow with them.”

Those cups work something like this: One is placed on an affected spot on the body. Air is then sucked out of the cup to create a vacuum of sorts on the skin. The idea is to bring blood into a sore, tight area. The side effect is those blotches, which a handful of Nationals players have on their backs, arms or shoulders at any given time.

“It can really be aggravating and irritating on some parts of the skin, depending on where you are, or if you rub on it a lot,” Nationals reliever Matt Belisle said. “But if you just stick it on, then pump, it’s not too bad — just pressure for awhile. If you scrape while you do it, it can be pretty…”

Well, you can imagine. Sometimes, the cups are used as a form of massage, placed on the body then moved around — “scraping,” to use Belisle’s somewhat disquieting term. Other times, they are left in place. Belisle, who is particularly attentive to his health and new techniques for maintaining it, said he became aware of cupping when he first broke into the majors — in 1998.

“I think that October I had a Korean roommate who had me do it to him,” Belisle said. “I knew about cupping back then, and [with the Rockies] it was pretty big as far as another therapy. … It’s been around for a good bit.”

When a report surfaced last week suggesting Bryce Harper had a lingering shoulder injury — one General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dusty Baker vehemently denied — it included the fact that Harper has been using cupping to treat the issue. Suddenly, questions began to pop up on Twitter. Was Harper, desperate for help, turning to the newest trend in sporting therapy after seeing Phelps do the same? Not quite.

Harper has used cupping on his neck area, but that is in no way unique, nor in itself suggestive of major underlying trouble. Stephen Strasburg sometimes has the splotches after his outings. Tanner Roark showed signs of cupping on his right elbow after one of his starts a few weeks back. In fact, Werth — who homered, walked and singled Monday in the Nationals’ 5-4 victory at Colorado, has had a few lingering blotches on his shoulder area this week.

“I’ve never really gotten into it. I’ll use it for specific things. I don’t use it every day,” Werth said. “If you’ve got something acute that’s tight, it can help bring the blood into an area. Some people like it more than others.”

Left-hander Sammy Solis uses the technique regularly, mostly to help break up soreness when he is particularly fatigued after an outing. He said he didn’t notice many players cupping in the minor leagues, but sees it all the time in the majors. Monday, Solis’s left shoulder was covered in those telltale spots, which are less visible on uniformed ballplayers than nearly-naked Olympic swimmers.

“No one really realizes — until now, until the Phelps thing — they don’t realize that cupping’s a thing,” Solis said. “You walk around and you have these huge hickeys, and they stay on for a long time – it’s almost a week that you have these dark marks. They don’t say anything because they think, oh, maybe it’s a birth mark or something.”

But cupping has been around, since ancient China, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece — even since the start of Werth’s career. Baseball just doesn’t provide the same exposure.