Dermatology

What to know about cupping therapy

There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may be beneficial for certain health conditions. However, research into cupping therapy tends to be low-quality. More studies are necessary to understand how cupping therapy works, if it works, and in what situations it may help.

Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern practice that people use to treat a variety of conditions.

It involves placing cups at certain points on a person’s skin. A practitioner creates suction in the cups, which pulls against a person’s skin.

Cupping can either be dry or wet. Wet cupping involves puncturing the skin before starting the suction, which removes some of the person’s blood during the procedure.

Cupping typically leaves round bruises on a person’s skin, where their blood vessels burst after exposure to the procedure’s suction effects.

Does it work?

Person having cupping therapy applied to back.
Cupping therapy may help increase or decrease blood flow.

According to a study paper in the journal PLoS One, cupping practitioners claim that it works by creating hyperemia or hemostasis around a person’s skin. This means that it either increases or decreases a person’s blood flow under the cups.

Cupping also has links to acupoints on a person’s body, which are central to the practice of acupuncture.

Many doctors consider cupping therapy a complementary therapy, which means that many do not recognize it as part of Western medicine. This does not mean that it is not effective, however.

Complementary therapies with supporting research may be an addition to Western medicine. However, as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) note, there is not yet enough high-quality research to prove cupping’s effectiveness.

Scientists have linked cupping therapy with a variety of health benefits, although there needs to be more research to determine whether it is effective as a treatment.

Pain relief

People frequently cite cupping therapy as a form of pain relief. However, while there is some evidence for its effectiveness, scientists need to conduct more high-quality studies to demonstrate this fully.

For example, a study paper in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found some evidence to suggest that cupping may reduce pain. However, its authors note that there were limits to the quality of the studies that showed this.

A meta-analysis that appears in the journal Revista Latina-Americano De Enfermagem claims that there may be evidence for cupping being effective in treating back pain. However, again, the researchers note that most studies were low-quality, and that there is a need for more standardization in future studies.

One study paper in the journal BMJ Open came to a similar conclusion for the effectiveness of cupping for neck pain. The researchers note that there is a need for better-quality studies to determine whether cupping therapy is truly effective.

Skin conditions

A study paper in the journal PLoS One found that there was some evidence for cupping therapy being effective at treating herpes zoster and acne.

However, it notes that the studies that supported these findings were at a high risk of bias. So, more rigorous, high-quality studies are necessary to verify the findings.

Sports recovery

A study paper in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine notes that professional athletes are increasingly using cupping therapy as part of their recovery practices.

However, the study found no consistent evidence to show that it was effective for anything related to sports recovery.

Side effects and risks

Person having cupping therapy close up view of skin on back suctioned in cup.
Cupping can cause irritation or damage to the skin.

According to the NCCIH, the side effects of cupping can include:

  • lasting skin discoloration
  • scarring
  • burns
  • infection

If a person has a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, cupping may make it worse on the area where the practitioner applies the cups.

In rare instances, a person may experience more significant internal bleeding or anemia if the practitioner takes too much blood during wet cupping.

According to a study paper that appears in the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, cupping can also cause:

Due to the poor quality of studies investigating cupping, it is difficult to know how common these side effects are.

If a person has any of these side effects following cupping therapy, they should speak to a medical professional. Some people may have health conditions, such as problems with blood clotting, that making cupping less than ideal.

Takeaway

There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may be able to help a person with certain health issues. However, there are not enough high-quality studies to support this.

To understand whether cupping therapy is effective, how it works, and what issues it is best for, scientists need to conduct and publish more high-quality research.

If a person finds that cupping therapy relieves their pain or helps their health in another way, and if they do not experience any adverse side effects, cupping may be a very good choice. However, some therapies have better evidence for their effectiveness. Doctors may advise that people consider these first.

A person may choose to use cupping therapy alongside better-evidenced therapies. If this is the case, it is important that they let a medical professional know.

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