Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine in which cups are placed on the skin to create suction. The cups can be made of a variety of materials, including:
Supporters of cupping therapy believe the suction of the cups mobilizes blood flow to promote the healing of a broad range of medical ailments.
Cupping therapy dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. One of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how the ancient Egyptians were using cupping therapy in 1,550 B.C.
In general, Western medical societies are skeptical of the health claims made by cupping therapy supporters. “Available scientific evidence does not support cupping as a cure for cancer or any other disease,” states the American Cancer Society. “Reports of successful treatment with cupping are mainly anecdotal rather than from research studies.”
But a 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that cupping therapy may have more than aplacebo effect. Australian and Chinese researchers reviewed 135 studies on cupping therapy published between 1992 and 2010. They concluded that cupping therapy may be effective when combined with other treatments like acupuncture or medications in treating various diseases and conditions, such as:
But the researchers acknowledge that many of the studies in their review may have contained some bias. They say better studies are needed to draw a definite conclusion.
Types of Cupping Therapy
There are various types of cupping therapy, including:
- Dry cupping (suction only)
- Wet cupping (combination of suction and controlled medicinal bleeding)
During both types of cupping, a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs, or paper is placed in a cup and set on fire. As the fire goes out, the cup is placed upside down on the patient’s skin.
As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. This causes the skin to rise and redden as bloodvessels expand. The cup is generally left in place for five to 10 minutes.
A more modern version of cupping uses a rubber pump to create the vacuum inside the cup. Sometimes practitioners use medical-grade silicone cups. These are pliable enough to be moved from place to place on the skin and produce a massage-like effect.
Types of Cupping Therapy continued…
During wet cupping, a mild suction is created using a cup that is left in place for about three minutes. The practitioner then removes the cup and uses a small scalpel to make superficial skin incisions. Then he or she performs a second suction to draw out a small quantity of blood.
After the procedure, the site may be covered with an antibiotic ointment and bandage to prevent infection. The skin’s appearance generally returns to normal within 10 days.
Cupping therapy supporters believe that wet cupping removes harmful substances and toxins from the body to promote healing.
Benefits of Cupping Therapy
The British Cupping Society says cupping therapy can treat a variety of conditions. This has not been backed up by studies. But the organization says cupping therapy is used to treat:
Supporters also believe that cupping therapy can reduce pain and inflammation throughout the body. And they say it can promote mental and physical relaxation and well-being.
Side Effects of Cupping Therapy
Cupping is considered to be relatively safe, especially when performed by trained health professionals. Potential side effects include:
- Mild discomfort
- Skin infection
According to the British Cupping Society, cupping therapy should be avoided by the following groups:
The organization also says cupping therapy should not be applied to sites on the body that have:
According to the American Cancer Society, one problem associated with cupping therapy is that patients may skip conventional treatment: “Relying on this treatment alone and delaying or avoiding conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.”
Also, a health care provider may mistakenly think marks left from cupping therapy are evidence of physical abuse.
Like many alternative treatments, cupping therapy has not been extensively studied. Researchers say that most cupping therapy studies have been small and poorly designed. More studies are needed to prove or disprove claims of health benefits.