How Cupping Could Relieve Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Cupping is a treatment for pain that, like acupuncture, comes to us from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Experts say it's been used since the fourth century.

Fast forward 1,700 years or so, and cupping is gaining public acceptance and the attention of some medical practitioners in the West. Awareness was dramatically heightened when U.S. swimmer extraordinaire Michael Phelps showed up at a 2016 Olympic event in Rio with round hickey-like marks all down his back.

An acupuncturist performing cupping therapy

Alina Vincent Photography, LLC. / Getty Images

While Western medicine hasn't delved into cupping very much yet, we do have some research from China on cupping as a fibromyalgia treatment, and early results appear to be positive.

What Is Cupping Therapy?

The traditional method of cupping involves little glass globes that look like the mini fish bowls pet shops keep bettas in. The practitioner puts a small amount of something flammable (such as rubbing alcohol or herbs) inside the cup and lights it on fire. That depletes the oxygen inside the cup.

Then the practitioner turns the cup upside down and places it on your skin. The air inside the cup then cools down, which creates a vacuum. The vacuum causes your skin to dome up inside the cup, which makes the blood vessels expand and create the signature round suction marks.

Of course, glass and flame aren't the safest materials to
work with. Because of that, some practitioners have left the globes and
flammable materials behind in favor of plastic cups that attach to a
pump. They simply put the cup on your skin and squeeze the pump a few
times to get the suction going. The effect is the same, only without the
risk of burns.

A variation of cupping therapy, known as wet cupping, involves making small cuts to the skin and then placing the cups over the cuts so that blood is drawn out during the process. Cupping that does not include cutting the skin is known as dry cupping.

TCM teaches that cupping therapy benefits include the opening of pores, the stimulation of blood flow, the filtration of blood, and the balancing of your qi (pronounced "chee"), which is the flow of energy through your body. It's often combined with acupuncture.

In China, cupping has long been used to treat a variety of conditions, including:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Arthritis and other types of pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Depression

In the West, we don't yet have research on the physiological effects of cupping or what conditions it may be effective at treating.

Cupping for Fibromyalgia

The first Chinese research on cupping as a fibromyalgia treatment was published in 2006. Researchers used acupuncture, cupping, and the drug amitriptyline in the treatment group and amitriptyline alone in the control group.

They concluded that the acupuncture+cupping+drug group improved significantly more than the drug-only group when it came to both pain and depression.

A similar but larger study in 2010 divided participants into three groups:

  1. Acupuncture+cupping+amitriptyline
  2. Acupuncture+cupping
  3. Amitriptyline only

Researchers said group 1 fared best, suggesting that both the drug and the TCM were effective and were able to complement each other.

A 2010 review of literature on TCM for fibromyalgia mentioned positive results of cupping but said that TCM therapies needed to be tested in larger studies with better designs than the early work.

A 2011 study looked at cupping alone. Thirty people with fibromyalgia were given cupping therapy for 10 minutes a day for 15 days. Researchers looked at pain and tender-point count before, during, and two weeks after treatment.

They concluded that cupping reduced both fibromyalgia pain and the number of tender points and that their findings warranted a placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Is Cupping Right for You?

Cupping is considered a generally safe treatment when it's performed by a qualified practitioner, and there are no reported additional risks of cupping for those with fibromyalgia. It's often performed by acupuncturists and massage therapists.

You shouldn't get cupping treatments when you have a high fever, if you have convulsions, or if you bleed easily. It also shouldn't be done on inflamed skin.

With fibromyalgia, many people have a type of pain called allodynia, which means your nervous system turns normally non-painful sensations into pain. Because of that, you may experience more pain than someone else during cupping. You may want to make sure your practitioner doesn't put cups on areas where you frequently have allodynia.

If you want to try cupping, talk to your healthcare provider about it first. If you decide to go ahead with it, make sure you're getting it from a reputable practitioner.

Pay attention to how you feel in the days after a cupping treatment to see whether it seems to be triggering any symptoms.

Keep in mind that cupping appears to be an effective complementary treatment. Don't expect it to replace your medications or other treatments. Instead, consider it one more weapon in your arsenal against fibromyalgia symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can cupping be harmful?

    Cupping therapy is generally safe, especially when done correctly. But there is some risk of side effects like skin discoloration and scarring.

    Reports of rare side effects include bleeding inside the skull from cupping on the scalp and anemia from repeated wet cupping.

  • Who should avoid cupping therapy?

    Those with skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis should avoid cupping, as it may worsen these conditions. Cupping therapy, especially wet cupping, is not recommended for those with bleeding disorders like deep vein thrombosis and hemophilia.

  • What conditions can cupping treat?

    Cupping is thought to relieve musculoskeletal pain like lower back pain and shoulder pain. Cupping is also purposed to alleviate symptoms of systematic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

    However, more research is needed to conclude if cupping therapy truly works to help treat such conditions.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Cupping.

  2. Aboushanab TS, AlSanad S. Cupping therapy: An overview from a modern medicine perspective. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 2018;11(3):83-87. doi:10.1016/j.jams.2018.02.001

Additional Reading

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.