Health benefits of cupping therapy
Cupping therapy benefits
Cupping therapy has been a key element of Chinese medicine for hundreds of years and has been seen in many other ancient cultures across the globe. It most recently came to the attention of a wider audience during the 2016 Olympics in Rio, when several athletes, like the swimmer Michael Phelps, were seen with a series of round purple bruises on their skin. Seeking any physical advantage, athletes were combining cutting-edge fitness techniques with time-honored practices like acupressure and acupuncture, of which cupping is a subset.
Holistic medicine practitioners were thrilled that these ancient practices were finally getting the recognition they deserved. However, many physicians are still questioning why cupping therapy might be beneficial and whether it can stand up to scientific scrutiny. Here’s what you need to know about cupping therapy and what experts are saying about it.
What is cupping therapy?
The underlying principle of cupping is that it activates and shifts your body's energy — in Chinese medicine, qi. The cups are placed where there is tension, fatigue or injury, usually around large muscular sites like the back, buttocks and chest. Cups can also be placed on the abdomen to promote digestive balance comparable to a dietary supplement. Less fleshy areas are generally avoided. By suctioning up an area that is in distress, the argument goes, you increase blood supply to the site, which ultimately serves to relieve pressure and promote cellular repair.
Cups are heated on the inside with fire, a process which creates a slight vacuum, then are quickly applied to the skin. The skin is pulled into the cup, stimulating blood flow to the area and creating a circular bruise. Some cupping sets will use a mechanical pump for suction, rather than requiring the cups to be heated up. The cups are removed after 5-10 minutes and the bruises recede in an average of 10-14 days.
Dry cupping therapy relies exclusively on this suction mechanism to encourage healing. Another kind of cupping, wet cupping, involves the same suction process, quickly followed by making small incisions in the cupping sites for bloodletting.
Other versions of cupping therapy are flash cupping (with quick application and removal of cups), needle cupping (in which an acupuncture needle is inserted prior to the cup being placed) and sliding cupping (a cup is continuously moved over a tight muscle group with massage-like results).
Types of cups
A standard cupping therapy setcontains at least four cups and a method of suction. The cups themselves can be made of a variety of materials such as plastic, glass, bamboo, ceramic and silicone and come in different sizes suited to different parts of the body. A cup for the face, for example, will be smaller than one used on the back.
Therapeutic benefits of cupping therapy
Some patients claim to experience a release in muscle tension and pain after therapy. A 2012 online meta study found that cupping therapy was helpful for relieving pain in localized ailments such as headaches, lower back pain, neck and shoulder pain and knee pain. It also found cupping therapy beneficial for some sufferers of systemic illnesses, such as hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, mental disorders, heart disease, hypertension and certain skin disorders.
Another study published in the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies in 2018 found that the most convincing evidence of the benefits of cupping therapy was in the field of pain management, particularly musculoskeletal pain, migraines and tension headaches. In one included study, there was a 66 percent reduction in headache severity following sessions of wet cupping therapy, with fewer incidents of headaches thereafter. Another found that five sessions of cupping therapy, with a few days between each treatment session and with cups left on the skin for eight minutes, resulted in impressive pain reduction in sufferers of chronic back pain. In general, dry cupping was found to be most beneficial for general pain, whereas wet cupping proved therapeutic against pain triggered by inflammation.
Dangers of cupping therapy
While a series of smaller, more observational studies have shown cupping to be therapeutic, particularly in pain relief, scientists are still trying to determine exactly what the underlying mechanism is, and more unbiased clinical studies in the field are still needed.
For certain people with underlying medical conditions, cupping therapy is highly discouraged. You should not attempt cupping therapy if you have cancer, deep vein thrombosis, any kind of organ dysfunction, a pacemaker, suffer from a blood clotting disorder such as hemophilia or are on blood-thinning medication. Cupping therapy is also not advised for elderly or pediatric patients or for patients who are pregnant or menstruating. It also should not be performed near any fractures, open wounds or delicate areas such as eyes or lymph nodes.
In healthy people, the negative effects of cupping can be lightheadedness, during and directly after therapy, as well as temporary bruising. There is a risk of getting burnt if the cups are heated too much prior to application. Wet cupping also carries an elevated risk of infection and scarring at the incision sites.
How to find a good cupping therapist
If you have consulted with your doctor and determined that cupping therapy is safe for you, you will need to find a reputable complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapist. Do some research before you commit. Feel free to ask the therapist about any licensing certifications they may have. You can also ask if the therapist specializes in treating particular ailments or conditions and has any experience in treating yours. Visiting the facility ahead of time to check on its overall sanitariness may also put your mind at rest.
Finally, cupping therapy should be used in tandem with your doctor’s recommendations and should not be viewed as an alternative. Be sure to keep your doctor informed of your therapy intentions and progress in recovery.
Bryony Gilbey is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.