Are alternative healing treatments right for a student athlete?

Young athletes probably noticed the deep purple circles on Michael Phelps' shoulders and wondered if they somehow gave the Olympic gold medalist an upper edge in the pool.

These circles are marks left from "cupping," a traditional Chinese medicine healing treatment that has taken center stage in Rio but has been around for thousands of years - and it isn't just for Olympians.

Student athletes getting ready for this season may want to consider holistic treatments to integrate with their traditional sports training or pain management.

These techniques are often considered safe and effective for treating sore joints and loosening tight muscles when administered by a qualified practitioner.

Holistic treatments such as cupping have become more popular and widely accepted with athletes striving to perform at peak performance levels.

Here are a few therapies to consider:


This technique uses small plastic or glass cups placed on the skin. A suction device is used to cause the skin and superficial muscle layer to be drawn into the cup.

The cups are left in place for about 10 minutes while the patient relaxes. This typically feels good to the patient as it loosens muscles and promotes blood flow to the area, which may encourages healing.

For athletes, the cups are usually placed over areas of pain or tightness such as the back, arms, or the legs.

High school athletes may find this an effective treatment as long as parents, teachers and coaches understand the cups may cause bruising.

For younger children, acupuncture or low level laser therapy may be considered instead.


A practitioner stimulates specific points on the body by inserting tiny needles into the skin. This can help block pain receptors, increase circulation and promote the body to release endorphins.

For athletes, it is most often used for pain relief or to release and relax contracted muscles. In addition, it is a great technique for stress reduction.

Acupuncture is considered very safe - the youngest patient I've used acupuncture on was a 2-year-old.

Low level laser therapy:

This involves using focused light from a laser over an area on the body to reduce pain, inflammation and swelling.

Laser therapy is a great option for people who don't like needles, people with arthritis or joint pain, or when needles are contraindicated.

Integrating holistic therapies can provide new ways to round out your health routine, and may provide pain relief and stress reduction.

When choosing a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, ensure they are they are nationally board certified and a licensed practitioner by going to

• Patricia Piant has a master's of science degree in traditional Chinese medicine and is a licensed acupuncturist for the Integrative Medicine Department, NorthShore University HealthSystem.

Patricia Piant demonstrates cupping therapy. Photo courtesy of Patricia Piant
Patricia Piant Photo courtesy of Patricia Piant
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.