What Is Cupping and Why Has It Become So Popular?

Can this suction therapy ease pain, promote blood flow, and speed healing?

cupping therapy
During cupping therapy, glass or plastic cups are often placed on the back. Asia Images/Vetta/Getty Images

Cupping is a procedure used in traditional Chinese medicine that involves placing rounded cups upside-down over a part of the body. The cups are held to the skin by a suction effect which is said to stimulate circulation. 

Why Do People Try Cupping?

Cupping is typically used to relieve muscle pain and soreness, inflammation, and to speed recovery from various ailments.

In the last five to 10 years, the practice of cupping has become popular in sports therapy for sore muscles and stiff joints.

Athletes like Michael Phelps have had the procedure done before performing in the Rio Olympics.

In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is said to stimulate the flow of vital energy (also known as "qi" or "chi") and help correct any imbalances arising from illness or injury. It is sometimes combined with acupuncture and tuina, which are other methods used to stimulate acupuncture points.

What Happens During a Cupping Treatment?

During a cupping treatment, the practitioner may place a flammable substance (such as herbs or alcohol) inside a cup, and then ignite that substance. When the flame goes out, the practitioner quickly places the cup upside-down on the body over certain qi pathways linked to the condition being treated. 

Alternatively, cupping can also be done using a mechanical or electrical vacuum pump. The cup is placed on the skin and the pump is used to create the suction.

The cups are usually left in place for five to ten minutes, during which time blood vessels expand and increase circulation.

Cupping is also thought to open up the skin's pores and promote detoxification.

In a procedure known as "wet cupping," the skin is punctured prior to treatment. This causes blood to flow out of the punctures during the cupping procedure, which is thought to clear toxins from the body.

The Benefits of Cupping: Does It Really Work?

To date, there is a lack of scientific research to support the use of cupping to treat any health condition.

For instance, a 2009 research review sized up seven trials testing cupping in patients with pain (such as low back pain and cancer pain); results showed that most of the studies were of poor quality.

In another research review published in 2010, scientists analyzed five studies that tested the use of cupping in stroke rehabilitation. Although the review's authors found insufficient evidence of cupping's effectiveness in stroke rehabilitation, two of the studies did show that cupping offered some benefits to patients who had suffered stroke. For instance, cupping had favorable effects on shoulder pain and muscle strength.

Possible Side Effects

Cupping may result in cause pain, swelling, and/or burns in some cases. Cupping also leaves round purple marks or circular bruises on the skin; these marks may begin to fade after several days but can remain for two to three weeks.

Cupping shouldn't be done on areas where the skin is broken, irritated, or inflamed. 

Although rare, other reported adverse effects include blisters, acquired hemophilia A, thrombocytopenia, iron deficiency anemia, kelloids, panniculitis, and skin pigmentation.

Some Final Thoughts

After seeing high-profile Olympic athletes and celebrities sport the characteristic purple bruises, it may be tempting to try cupping, but there's currently no clear evidence that it can reduce pain or treat any condition. If you're still thinking of trying it, be sure to consult your primary care provider first to weigh the pros and cons and discuss whether it's appropriate for you. 

Sources:

Kim JI, Lee MS, Lee DH, Boddy K, Ernst E. Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 May 7.

Lee MS, Choi TY, Shin BC, Han CH, Ernst E. Cupping for stroke rehabilitation: A systematic review. J Neurol Sci. 2010 Apr 30.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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