By Daniel Owens and Jeremy Grunden
Cupping is form of alternative medicine that is said to help with pain, inflammation and blood flow. All of this can lead to better well-being and relaxation as it acts as a form of deep tissue massage. While not that popular, you may have seen it being used during the Rio Summer Olympic games in 2016. Many athletes, such as Michael Phelps, were seen with large purple spots along their body. This is the result of cupping therapy. Cupping is usually put into two categories; wet and dry. Dry cupping involves the suction of the skin into the cup. Wet cupping has one extra step in which an incision is made, and blood is drawn from the suctioned area. While Olympic athletes seem convinced, is there any scientific data to support cupping as a valid therapy for recovery and rehabilitation?
First, we will look into rehabilitation. A study from Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine attempted to prove the efficacy of cupping therapy for treating chronic neck and shoulder pain. The three things that they were looking for was skin surface temperature, blood pressure, and pain intensity. They had a cupping and a control group and found cupping to be statistically significant in raising the skin surface temperature and lowering the pain intensity (Figure 1). The conclusion was that cupping causes vasodilation and can increase blood circulation and is therefore an effective therapy for chronic neck and shoulder pain. These results are not without some cause for concern. First off the sample size was relatively small and similar. Also the increase in skin surface temperature is to be expected, however the pain intensity could be attributed to a number of things. Pain tolerance between patients is different and the decrease in pain intensity of the cupping group could be a result of the placebo effect.
One case study looked into utilizing cupping therapy as a means of treatment for vascular thoracic outlet syndrome. Vascular thoracic outlet syndrome is when blood vessels and nerves near the collarbone are compressed. This restricts blood flow and can lead to pain and numbness along the shoulder and down to the fingers. The case study focused on a collegiate baseball pitcher who had been diagnosed with the disease. The pitcher was put on a program that included cupping therapy on alternating days combined with certain range of motion exercises. The patient began to pitch again and noted no swelling, increased range of motion and significantly less pain. All of this would suggest that the cupping therapy was effective in treating this ailment. However, some issues with the case study is that they did not continue to follow up with the patient after the 3 week period and the sudden improved health could be attributed to a number of different factors. The authors do admit that more research and testing must be conducted to fully understand the efficacy of cupping therapy.
In regards to recovery, a study was done by a team of Greek researchers to find how cupping therapy compares to other treatments in the combating of myofascial pain syndrome. Myofascial pain syndrome is caused by painful spots in the fascia surrounding the skeletal muscle due to repetitive injury, training overload, and muscular overuse. Cupping was done to 20 amateur soccer athletes once a week for three weeks, and their pain pressure threshold (PPT) and visual analogue scale (VAS) was taken before and after the treatment sessions. An increase in PPT and a decrease in VAS was observed in the athletes after cupping. These changes suggest that cupping does have an effect on the body. It’s stated in the article that researchers believe cupping causes hyperemia and local stretching, which is similar to what the first study concluded.
These results show that cupping seems to improve recovery, however other recovery techniques appear to be more effective. Cupping saw the smallest change in the pre and post values. Additionally, it’s always important to consider each participant’s pain tolerance varies. This helps to explain why the standard deviation was ~1.5 for all values in table one.
Compiling all of the evidence, it seems cupping does have an effect on rehabilitation and recovery. Cupping causes vasodilation and hyperemia. This increase in blood circulation and dilation of the blood vessels helps to combat illness that are caused by constricted/compressed blood vessels, like vascular thoracic outlet syndrome. According to the third article though, cupping may not be the most effective recovery solution. When considering the cost of each treatment method, availability, and preference, cupping may not always be the best solution for recovery.
Questions to Consider:
- When would cupping therapy be ideal to use?
- How is cupping therapy better than other therapies?
- Can cupping therapy be combined with other techniques to boost its performance?
Ahmadi, Alireza, et al. “The Efficacy of Wet-Cupping in the Treatment of Tension and Migraine Headache.” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, vol. 36, no. 01, 2008, pp. 37–44., doi:10.1142/s0192415x08005564.
Bridgett, Rhianna, et al. “Effects of Cupping Therapy in Amateur and Professional Athletes: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 24, no. 3, 2018, pp. 208–219., doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0191.
Jun, Wu. “Experimental Study on Treatment of Chronic Soft Tissue Injuries with Fire-Needle Therapy.” Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion, 2002, doi: R245.316.
“Fire Cupping-2.” Flickr, www.flickr.com/photos/psit/4827714792.