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Does Cupping Therapy ACTUALLY Work?



Cupping therapy has gained significant attention particularly due to its use by high profile athletes. But does this ancient healing technique actually provide effective outcomes? Let's dive into cupping therapy, exploring what it is, how it works, and the scientific evidence supporting its use. I’ll also give you my recommendations on whether this treatment can transform your pain management or if it’s a passing trend not worth your time.


Cupping therapy has roots in traditional Chinese medicine going back thousands of years but has evolved into various forms practiced worldwide. Initially, cupping primarily targeted musculoskeletal problems, pain, and body tension. Nowadays, its applications have expanded to include reducing inflammation, promoting relaxation, and enhancing recovery in sports.


Cupping therapy involves placing cups on the skin's surface to create a vacuum or suction effect. This suction can be achieved through different methods, with two primary techniques being used today: wet cupping and dry cupping.


Wet cupping is a traditional therapeutic practice that involves a combination of cupping and controlled bloodletting. This process involves very shallow incisions on the skin, just enough to break the skin’s surface to cause bleeding. The suction cups are then placed over the incisions to draw out a small amount of blood into the cups. Practitioners believe that wet cupping helps to remove toxins from the body which in turn improves overall health. 


Dry cupping, on the other hand, doesn't involve any incisions. Instead, the cups create a suction force that lifts the skin and underlying tissues. The cups can be stationary or moved around the skin’s surface depending on the technique and therapeutic goals. 


Mechanisms of action for cupping therapy are still being researched, but there are several theories that attempt to explain how it works. One of the primary hypotheses is that cupping therapy can enhance blood circulation. The suction generated by the cups is thought to enhance blood flow to the targeted area, potentially aiding in delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues, facilitating the removal of metabolic waste, and supporting natural healing processes.


Additionally, cupping is believed to alleviate muscle tension and tightness. The suction created can potentially loosen restrictions and adhesions in the muscles and fascia, potentially resulting in an improved range of motion and decreased pain.


Cupping therapy is most commonly used for treating musculoskeletal pain, and recent clinical trials provide some evidence supporting its effectiveness. In the case of knee osteoarthritis, there is some evidence indicating that cupping therapy may improve pain and physical function. 


Similar findings apply to neck and low back pain. Several studies suggest that cupping therapy can effectively reduce pain in patients with chronic neck and low back issues. However, other research studies indicate that cupping therapy’s effectiveness is comparable to sham or placebo treatments, suggesting that its benefits might not be consistent across all cases.


Ancient Chinese practices also tout cupping for its anti-inflammatory effects. There is emerging evidence suggesting that cupping stimulates the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines and reduces the production of proinflammatory molecules. This could lead to decreased inflammation and associated pain relief.


Furthermore, cupping therapy is believed to exert both localized and systemic effects on the body. Locally, it can target specific areas, such as relieving sore muscles or tightness. Systemically, its potential to enhance circulation and elicit responses from the nervous system may offer broader health benefits, including improving overall well-being and potentially boosting the immune system.


Again, there is some clinical trial evidence for this. One study found that wet cupping can help reduce blood pressure in hypertensive patients for up to 4 weeks. Another study found that as a complementary intervention, cupping may help reduce waist circumference, body weight, body mass index, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in patients with metabolic syndrome.


It's important to note that Western medicine has only recently begun conducting clinical trials on alternative medicine practices like cupping. A significant critique of the studies I've discussed is their small sample sizes and the generally weak evidence, which carries a high risk of bias.


However, the absence of strong clinical trial evidence does not necessarily imply that cupping therapy is ineffective. Its long standing use over thousands of years across different cultures suggests its enduring relevance and potential benefits. 


In my own practice, patient feedback on cupping therapy has been mixed. Some people swear by it and say it is much more effective than getting a massage or seeing a physical therapist. Others have more reserved responses, noting limited to no benefits. I’ve also had many competitive athletes report that cupping helps relax their muscles and aids in recovery more effectively than other methods like soft tissue massage or TENS units.


I think the key thing to keep in mind is that cupping is a relatively safe procedure. While there is some data to suggest that cupping treatments result in higher rates of adverse events, most of these are skin related conditions such as irritation, bruising, soreness, or burns. The most recognizable side effect is the circular bruise marks on the skin, which are typically benign and temporary.


Wet cupping introduces additional risks due to skin incisions, which can increase the likelihood of infections. Furthermore, a specific group of patients who need to be cautious with cupping therapy includes those on anticoagulants or those with bleeding disorders, as they are at a higher risk of complications.


The real benefit of cupping is that it is a modality that can potentially alleviate pain while also reducing reliance on medications like ibuprofen or naproxen, which have their own side effects. Cupping is probably best used as an adjunctive treatment, used in conjunction with standard care, rather than as a standalone therapy.


So is cupping a suitable treatment for everyone? Probably not. I think the novelty of the treatment and the distinctive circular bruises it leaves might deter some individuals. However, it could be a worthwhile option for those seeking new methods for effective pain relief.

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