Perhaps less nice to look at than Michael Phelps, but a textbook from 1692 showing cupping.

Perhaps less nice to look at than Michael Phelps, but a textbook from 1692 showing cupping.

The world is atwitter with Michael Phelps’ 22-gold medals and the black and blue circles all over his body.  While seeing these spots all over Olympic swimmers makes it seem like a new fad, it’s certainly not new.  Ancient Egyptians appear to have practiced cupping.  It’s been recorded in Chinese practice since around 281 A.D.  In George Orwell’s 1929 essay, How the Poor Die, he described seeing the cupping technique used on a patient, but he thought it was strange, something from old medical textbooks that was only done on horses.  If cupping becomes a standard practice, we can probably thank Michael Phelps’ trainers.  It’s never had so much media attention.So Michael Phelps is cupping, but should you?

There are two types of cupping, dry and wet.  Wet cupping involves mild suction, using heat inside a small jar-like object placed on the skin to draw up the skin followed by small cuts to let blood drain.  I would NEVER do wet cupping.  Dry eliminates the small incisions and blood draw. Dry just involves the suction.  Basically, in concept it’s like giving yourself a hickey, although while getting a hickey can feel nice, never having tried cupping, I’m not sure whether cupping feels quite as good.

The thought is that by drawing blood to the area you encourage the body to reduce inflammation to injuries that make you feel sore.  You also bring blood to an area to encourage healing.   In more modern terms it is referred to as myofascial decompression and the thought is that your release muscular and fascial adhesions with decompression.  Most therapy modalities compress the muscle or fascia while cupping decompresses it.  That sounds like it makes good sense, but does it work?

Much more research needs to be done.  In 2011 a systematic review was conducted to look at all studies on cupping and pain.  After reviewing 285 articles on cupping, only seven were deemed acceptable sources by the review team.  Some were excluded because pain was not the main purpose of the research study, but many were excluded for arguably having faulty science or low participation.  Of the seven studies, many results seemed positive, although placebo effect could be playing a roll.  It’s hard to conduct a blind cupping study.  People tend to notice.  The studies looked at wet and dry cupping.

The review suggested all the studies may have been biased and that studies with negative results may have never been published, which may skew the results positively.  There weren’t a lot of adverse effects reported, except in one of the seven studies.  Fainting from wet cupping seemed to be the biggest problem.  One study seemed to suggest that dry cupping was more effective at treating low back pain and cancer pain than conventional treatment, including drug therapy.  But remember these studies are small and possibly flawed.  However, if you’ve exhausted all options and are looking to experiment, perhaps it’s worth a try.

As with anything you do with your body, get a recommendation for a practitioner form someone you trust.  Never just go to anyone.  And always talk to your doctor.