Cupping has been around for thousands of years and traces its roots to ancient Chinese and Egyptian medicine. It was actually documented in one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, Ebers Papyrus, which was written in 1550 BC. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) cupping was used to remove stagnation and stimulate the flow of qi (chi). Qi is the free flow of vital energy circulating through the body and the world around us, if the qi is disrupted or disturbed, it can create stagnation (blockages) or imbalances in the body.
Those are the ancient Chinese talking, not me.
More recently, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, many competitors (including swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alex Naddour) sported the round marks and bruises which accompany this practice and swore by the restorative properties of this practice. Nowadays you see cupping circles on athletes from UFC fighters to NBA and MLB players.
So, what is it actually supposed to do, and does it actually do it? Or is it something for rich sports folks to do between their cryotherapy sessions and stopping by the Starbucks for their kombucha lattes with a side shot of sparkling CBD infused coconut water…
…but I digress…
A typical cupping treatment involves warming and placing cups, usually made of glass, on the skin. By warming the air within the cup, a vacuum is created, and when it is applied to the skin, the tissue is drawn up into the cup. This increases the blood flow, loosens the fascia or connective tissue, and is thought to stimulate healing. It is similar to the way deep tissue massage can be used to break up scar tissue and reduce pain. The cups are often placed on the back, neck, and shoulders or the site of pain. Think of it as an “anti- acupressure” Instead of pushing in to a muscle or fascia group, the vacuum pulls it away. This loosens connective tissue or fascia and stimulates blood flow to the surface. The research of U.S. physiologist and acupuncturist Helene Langevin has documented cell-level changes using an ultrasound camera. She has demonstrated that techniques like cupping, acupuncture, and massage relax tissue and reduce markers of inflammation. For athletes, cupping may help increase blood flow to a particular muscle region or help reduce pain.
Is it backed up by science?
There has been some research that suggests cupping does have benefits when it comes to pain relief, but the studies are generally considered low quality. In a small 2012 study, people with chronic neck pain received either a cupping treatment regimen or training in relaxation techniques. Though both groups reported similar reductions in overall pain, the cupping group had higher scores for overall well-being. Similar promising results were noted in a 2013 study for the use of cupping therapy on low back pain. But in a 2018 systematic review of cupping therapy for professional and amateur athletes, experts concluded there just wasn’t enough evidence to say for sure: “… no explicit recommendation for or against the use of cupping for athletes can be made.” More studies are needed to conclusively understand the health impacts of the therapy.
There are other claims regarding the benefits of cupping. They include, in no particular order:
digestive complaints, some people report it “releases their bowels.” Like, a lot. Like right now)
high blood pressure,
fertility, ( of course. Can’t you just see Frank Thomas winking (“she’ll like it too” indeed, Frank)
insomnia, and last but not least,
Pardon me while I look for the horse drawn wagon pulling into town and the shady looking guy in the loud tie & blazer proclaiming the many benefits of his “elixir”. Maybe I’m just jaded.
Side effects? Glad you asked but, really, not many.
Cupping frequently causes marks on the skin. This is due to bringing blood to the surface, similar to a bruise. For patients with bleeding disorders such as hemophilia or who are being treated with anticoagulants, cupping may not be the best treatment option. Cupping should not be performed on skin sites with active inflammation, burns, infection, or open wounds. Some discomfort can occur but should not be considered a side effect.
So, as a new ( to us, not to the Indians or Chinese) treatment for minor stiffness, soreness or injury, it’s something to try. It may or may not help, and that help may be actual or perceived , but given the low risk of any actual damage or injury, it’s something you can try for yourself.
If nothing else it cam give you an interesting story to chat up that cute girl / guy at the soon to be re-opening bars / gyms.
Take care, stay healthy and safe my friends.