- Cupping therapy consists of using suction cups to pull skin away from the body.
- People use cupping therapy in the hopes of pulling toxins out of the body and thereby improving health, immunity, and performance.
- Unfortunately, research shows that cupping probably doesn’t work.
You have a few aches and pains. We all have a few aches and pains.
Yet here you are, saddled with the same aches and pains, wondering about an unusual solution: cupping therapy.
If you’ve poked around on the Internet, you’ve probably heard good things about it from one crowd, like improved muscle recovery, immunity, vitality, and overall well-being, and bad things from another, like, well, that it doesn’t do much of anything and can even be dangerous.
You may have also heard that elite athletes have a penchant for cupping therapy.
For example, Michael Phelps reportedly used cupping to recover from his grueling training and competition schedule. If it’s good enough for the greatest Olympian of all time, then it’s probably worth a shot, no?
Well, the unfortunate answer is no, it’s probably not worth your time or money, and in this article, I’ll explain why.
As you’ll see, research shows that while cupping therapy may be able to provide temporary pain relief, sugar pills can do the same and it probably won’t deliver any significant physiological benefits.
In short, if cupping therapy can help you, it’s probably through the placebo effect and nothing else, and by the end of this article, you’ll know why.
- What Is Cupping Therapy?
- Does Cupping Therapy Work?
- Is Cupping Therapy Safe?
- The Bottom Line on Cupping Therapy
Table of Contents
Cupping therapy consists of placing several small cups on various points of the body and using a device to suck the air out of them, pulling the skin away from the body.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
Once in place, the cups are generally left on the skin for 5 to 15 minutes, leaving bruises that can last for several days to a week or more.
There are several different kinds of cupping therapy:
- Dry cupping uses light air suction, usually with a manual or electronic air pump. This is the most common kind of cupping therapy.
- Fire cupping involves holding a flame inside the cups immediately before they’re placed on the skin. As the hot air cools, it contracts, pulling the skin into the cup.
- Wet cupping, also known as “Hijama,” is an ancient form of cupping that involves making small incisions in the skin before the cups are applied, allowing blood to be drawn out and into the cups.
Now, why the hell do people do this, you might be wondering.
Well, it’s usually for one of three reasons:
- To reduce muscle pain, tightness, and soreness, and to speed up post-workout recovery.
- To improve general health and well-being.
- To prevent or treat illness.
And how the hell could sucking your skin into glass cups possibly accomplish any of this?
Well, the theory is that it pulls toxins out of body through the skin, and that the fewer toxins you have floating around in your system, the better it will be able to function.
Some cupping practitioners even say that the marks left aren’t bruises but toxins that have been siphoned out of the body.
There isn’t much research available on cupping therapy, but what has been done doesn’t leave much to write home about.
Let’s start with a recent study published in 2016 in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine that many people point to as conclusive proof that cupping works.
60 people with neck pain were split into two groups, and one received cupping therapy while the other received no treatment whatsoever.
The cupping therapy group reported less neck pain than the control group, ERGO, cupping therapy works…right?
Well, not quite.
Thus, you need rigorously designed research to accurately examine the efficacy of pain-reduction therapies — more rigorous than what we see here.
Just about every other study available on cupping therapy is similarly flawed.
They aren’t well controlled and, at best, demonstrate slight and temporary pain relief in some people with no additional benefits, and in many cases, were so poorly designed that the placebo effect couldn’t be ruled out.
Furthermore, when you dig through the literature, you’ll find just one high-quality randomized controlled trial on cupping therapy, and in it, cupping provided no relief to people suffering from low-back pain.
All of this isn’t surprising, really, when you consider the dubious hypothesis of how cupping therapy even works. (Whenever someone says they have something that will help “detox” your body, you should get real skeptical, real fast.)
So, what do we have in the final analysis, then?
Well, not much, it seems — a fake therapy that’s as foolish as it looks.
Some people say that science just hasn’t caught up, though, and that’s why many elite athletes are into it.
This is wishful thinking.
Athletes will try just about anything if they think it will improve their performance, regardless of how absurd it sounds or how little evidence there is to support it.
For example, many top-level athletes still turn to kinesio tape, magnetic bracelets, and acupuncture to improve performance and speed recovery, despite the mounting scientific evidence disproving any such benefits.
This depends on which kind of cupping therapy we’re talking about.
Dry cupping appears to be mostly safe as long as it’s performed correctly, but it can still cause severe bruising.
Fire cupping is a little more dangerous because the cups can burn the skin if they’re too hot, but on the whole, it’s as safe as dry cupping.
Wet cupping, on the other hand, is always dangerous because it’s basically modern bloodletting, which comes with a risk of infection and permanent scarring.
Cupping therapy has been around for centuries now, and has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, mainly due to high-profile endorsements.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the research currently available on it says it’s quackery.
If, however, you want to see for yourself what cupping therapy has to offer, I highly recommend that you stick with the safest method, dry cupping.
What’s your take on cupping therapy? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below.
+ Scientific References
- Dreisinger, T. E. (2014). Exercise in the Management of Chronic Back Pain. The Ochsner Journal, 14(1), 101. /pmc/articles/PMC3963038/
- LS, W., N, S., K, P., R, V., CR, D., & BM, B. (2017). Yoga treatment for chronic non-specific low back pain. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD010671.PUB2
- C, P., JP, B., E, L., G, C., D, C., K, A., & BM, J. (2016). Effect of Manual Lymphatic Drainage After Total Knee Arthroplasty: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 97(5), 674–682. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.APMR.2016.01.006
- MH, P., EM, B., & E, E. (2007). Static magnets for reducing pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne, 177(7), 736–742. https://doi.org/10.1503/CMAJ.061344
- PJ, V., TS, M., GI, B., AN, R., BA, F., B, B., & KP, G. (2012). Effect of the Power Balance® band on static balance, hamstring flexibility, and arm strength in adults. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2113–2118. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E31823A43CE
- C, P. P., C, C. L., LC, H., AD, L., & LO, C. (2014). Current evidence does not support the use of Kinesio Taping in clinical practice: a systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy, 60(1), 31–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JPHYS.2013.12.008
- JI, K., TH, K., MS, L., JW, K., KH, K., JY, C., KW, K., AR, K., MS, S., SY, J., & SM, C. (2011). Evaluation of wet-cupping therapy for persistent non-specific low back pain: a randomised, waiting-list controlled, open-label, parallel-group pilot trial. Trials, 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/1745-6215-12-146
- Jin, Y., Zhou, J., Xu, F., Ren, Z., Hu, J., Zhang, C., Ge, K., & Liu, L. (2021). Electroacupuncture alleviates the transition from acute to chronic pain through the p38 MAPK/TNF-α signalling pathway in the spinal dorsal horn. Acupuncture in Medicine, 096452842110207. https://doi.org/10.1177/09645284211020766
- MS, L., JI, K., & E, E. (2011). Is cupping an effective treatment? An overview of systematic reviews. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 4(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2005-2901(11)60001-0
- A, H., & PC, G. (2010). Placebo interventions for all clinical conditions. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2010(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003974.PUB3
- Karanicolas, P. J., Farrokhyar, F., & Bhandari, M. (2010). Blinding: Who, what, when, why, how? Canadian Journal of Surgery, 53(5), 345. /pmc/articles/PMC2947122/
- LM, C., LM, L., CL, C., SF, W., HL, L., & TC, P. (2016). The Effectiveness of Cupping Therapy on Relieving Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/7358918
- JJ, C., FM, W., NB, F., MP, J., C, M., JS, R., P, W., D, S., & JLK, K. (2016). Meta-analysis of placebo responses in central neuropathic pain: impact of subject, study, and pain characteristics. Pain, 157(3), 530–540. https://doi.org/10.1097/J.PAIN.0000000000000431