What is Cupping Therapy?

cupping therapy
During cupping therapy, glass or plastic cups are often placed on the back. Asia Images/Vetta/Getty Images

Cupping therapy is a practice that involves briefly attaching rounded inverted cups to certain parts of the body using a vacuum effect. Some proponents suggest that the drawing of the skin inside the cups increases blood flow to the area.

Long used in traditional Chinese medicine and other ancient healing systems, cupping has gained considerable popularity in recent years among athletes.

For instance, swimmer Michael Phelps is said to have had the therapy in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Uses for Cupping

Cupping is often recommended as a complementary therapy for the following conditions:

  • Back pain
  • Headache or migraine
  • Knee pain
  • Muscle pain and soreness
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Sports injuries and performance

In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is said to stimulate the flow of vital energy (also known as "qi" or "chi") and help correct any imbalances arising from illness or injury. It's sometimes combined with acupuncture and tuina, other therapies said to promote the flow of energy.

How Does Cupping Therapy Work?

To create the suction inside the cups, the practitioner may them by placing a flammable substance (such as herbs, alcohol, and/or paper) inside each cup and then igniting that substance. Next, the practitioner places the cup upside down on the body. During a typical cupping treatment, between three and seven cups are placed on the body.

Today, many practitioners use a manual or electric pump to create the vacuum, or use self-suctioning cupping sets. After the cups are in place, they are usually removed after five to ten minutes. (Practitioners may practice "flash" cupping, by quickly attaching then removing the cup repeatedly.) 

Some practitioners apply massage oil or cream and then attach silicone cups, sliding them around the body rhythmically for a massage-like effect.

In a procedure known as "wet cupping," the skin is punctured prior to treatment. This causes blood to flow out of the punctures during the cupping procedure, which is thought to clear toxins from the body.

The Benefits of Cupping

To date, there is a lack of high-quality scientific research to support the use of cupping to treat any health condition. For instance, a 2011 research review sized up seven trials testing cupping in people with pain (such as low back pain); results showed that most of the studies were of poor quality.

In another research review published in 2017, scientists analyzed 11 studies that tested the use of cupping by athletes. The review's authors concluded that no explicit recommendation could be made for or against the use of cupping in athletes, and that further studies are needed. Some studies did show that cupping improved perceptions of pain and disability and had favorable effects on range of motion compared to no cupping.

Although cupping is sometimes recommended to increase flexibility in athletes, a small study published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation in 2018 found no change in hamstring flexibility after a seven-minute cupping session using four cups.

Study participants were NCAA Division III college soccer players without symptoms.

Possible Side Effects

Cupping may cause pain, swelling, burns, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, skin pigmentation, and/or nausea. Cupping also leaves round purple marks or circular bruises on the skin; these marks may begin to fade after several days but can remain for two to three weeks. Scars and burns have been known to occur after cupping.

Cupping shouldn't be done on areas where the skin is broken, irritated, or inflamed, or over arteries, veins, lymph nodes, eyes, orifices, or any fractures. Pregnant woman, children, older adults, and people with certain health conditions (such as cancer, organ failure, hemophilia, edema, blood disorders, and some types of heart disease) are among those who shouldn't have cupping.

 People taking blood-thinning medication also shouldn't try cupping.

You shouldn't use cupping in place of standard treatment for any medical condition.

Although rare, other reported adverse effects include blisters, acquired hemophilia A, thrombocytopenia, iron deficiency anemia, keloids, panniculitis, and skin pigmentation.

Infection, scarring, and blood loss may occur with wet cupping.

The practitioner should follow standard infection control practices and safety precautions to protect against the transmission of diseases (such as hepatitis).

The Bottom Line

After seeing high-profile athletes and celebrities sport the characteristic round purple marks, it may be tempting to try cupping, but there's currently a lack of research on cupping. If you're still thinking of trying it, be sure to consult your doctor before beginning treatment.

Sources:

Bridgett R, Klose P, Duffield R, Mydock S, Lauche R. Effects of Cupping Therapy in Amateur and Professional Athletes: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Nov 29.

Kim JI, Lee MS, Lee DH, Boddy K, Ernst E. Cupping for treating pain: a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:467014.

Williams JG, Gard HI, Gregory JM, Gibson A, Austin J. The Effects of Cupping on Hamstring Flexibility in Collegiate Soccer Players. J Sport Rehabil. 2018 Jan 24:1-18.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.