Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin is doing it. So is gymnast Alexander Naddour and swimmer Michael Phelps. My yoga teacher raves about it, as does a college friend whose Instagram account is full of post-run bliss selfies and kale smoothies.

I’m talking about cupping, the ancient alternative medicine that dates back to ancient Egypt. Cupping has slowly gathered steam amongst professional athletes and people who use the words “lymphatic massage” and “ice baths”. This year it is making its televised debut at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Many professional athletes swear by it, saying it keeps them injury free and speeds recovery. It is not, however, common place in most private practice physical therapy practices. While many use it to soften tight muscles and muscle attachments, loosen adhesions, and lift connective tissue, there is little consensus – or science – around whether cupping offers a real physiological benefit or simply a placebo effect.

What is Cupping?

Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine in which cups are placed on the skin to create suction. Supporters believe the suction of the cups mobilizes blood flow to promote the healing of a broad range of conditions.

There are multiple types of cupping therapy, including:

  • Dry cupping (suction only)
  • Wet cupping (combination of suction and controlled medicinal bleeding)

During both types of treatment, a rubber pump creates a vacuum inside the cup, which is typically made of glass. This causes the skin to rise and redden as blood vessels expand. The cup is generally left in place for 5 to 10 minutes.

Some physical therapists report that cupping complements physical therapy and can help with a variety of goals, from deep tissue release to lymphatic drainage. Others say that cupping can stimulate the lymphatic system to drain excess fluid and help the body reabsorb toxins.

So, Does It Actually Work?

Scientific evidence of the benefits of cupping are limited. Cupping has not been studied in large, controlled clinical trials. Also, placebo effects can be strong, especially amongst professional athletes who tend to be early cupping adopters.

One outspoken cupping critic, James Hamblin, MD and senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote: “If you have the disposable time and money, and cupping makes you feel good, and it’s not undertaken at the expense of any evidence-based health endeavors, and you don’t have any blood clotting disorders or any other medical contraindication, it’s probably not going to hurt you in any way other than the pain it causes.”

A Clinicient client said, “I don’t know that I would say cupping is totally legit, but it does seem to have some efficacy, although not adequately supported by science or research. We have used it with a select number of patients and some have had outstanding results, but that could possibly be a placebo effect.”

With that being said, emerging studies may indicate otherwise:

  • One 2012 study of 61 people with chronic neck pain compared cupping to a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, or P.M.R., during which a patient deliberately tenses his muscles and then focuses on relaxing them. The patients who had used cupping scored higher on measurements of well-being and felt less pain when pressure was applied to the area.
  • Another randomized experiment involving 40 patientswho suffered from knee arthritis, found that people who underwent cupping reported less pain after four months compared to arthritis sufferers in a control group who were not treated.
  • A 2016 study reported that cupping reduced chronic neck and shoulder pain by mimicking an analgesic effect without causing negative side effects.
  • A 2015 study about the use of cupping at outpatient clinics in Saudia Arabia concluded that the treatment is potentially effective in reducing pain and improving disability associated with persistent nonspecific low back pain at least for 2 weeks after the end of the wet cupping treatment.

What do you think? Do you use cupping? Or would you in the future?


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