Key Takeaways

  1. Cupping therapy consists of using suction cups to pull skin away from the body.
  2. People use cupping therapy in the hopes of pulling toxins out of the body and thereby improving health, immunity, and performance.
  3. Unfortunately, research shows that cupping probably doesn’t work.

You have a few aches and pains. We all have a few aches and pains.

Maybe it’s a shoulder or your hips or back.

You’ve probably tried many things to get relief, too: chiropractic, massage, stretching, foam rolling, and corrective exercises, to name a few.

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?

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:

cupping featured
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:

  1. Dry cupping uses light air suction, usually with a manual or electronic air pump. This is the most common kind of cupping therapy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. To reduce muscle pain, tightness, and soreness, and to speed up post-workout recovery.
  2. To improve general health and well-being.
  3. 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.

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Does Cupping Therapy Work?

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.

First, this study was only single-blinded, which means the researchers knew who was receiving which treatment (and this can skew results).

Second, when you’re dealing with pain, providing just about any type of treatment is better than simply doing nothing (thanks to the placebo effect).

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.

Is Cupping Therapy Safe?

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.

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The Bottom Line on Cupping Therapy

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 you’re looking for natural pain relief, get a massage, do some yoga, or lift weights instead — all are proven ways to reduce pain and improve health and well-being.

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