Cupping, the practice of using suction on the surface of the skin with cups, is quite an interesting topic. While the practice is quite old, it was unknown to most people until Michael Phelps was seen in his last Olympic games, with the telltale cupping marks on his back and shoulders.
What is Cupping?
The process of cupping is this:
- With heating and cooling, or with a mechanical pump, suction is created at the surface of the skin
- Using suction, the skin is drawn into a cup (or bell), creating a vacuum
- The suctions is held for anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes
Alleged Benefits and Safety
The term alleged is used here because there is little to no evidence showing the efficacy of cupping. So the benefits claimed by proponents of cupping could be due to a placebo of sorts or perhaps there are real benefits not yet observed in research. The “benefits” of cupping are:
- Pain relief
- Release of muscle knots
- Decrease in swelling
- Break up of scar tissue
Whether or not cupping does anything at all, it’s important to know if it’s even safe to try. Generally, if done by a trained professional on relatively healthy people, cupping is safe. Depending on the type of cupping you could be at an increased risk of burns, more on that later.
Types of Cupping
- Dry Cupping: The air inside the cup or the cup itself is heated, creating an area of low pressure above the skin to create the suction
- Fire Cupping: A cotton ball or something similar, is soaked in alcohol and lit. The cotton ball is briefly placed inside the cup and then removed. The cup is quickly placed on the skin. This type of cupping has a higher rate of burns and related accidents
- Wet Cupping: Cupping meets bleeding. A small amount of blood is drawn into the cups from the surface of the skin
Evidence of Efficacy
The evidence in support of cupping is very scarce. Very little quality research has been done on cupping and the results are not in support of cupping. There are are some studies, possibly subjective, that show cupping may provide some actual pain relief. Some randomized controlled trials seem to lean towards pain relief, but no “gold standard” studies have been done to date. Many of the reported benefits could be due to cupping being similar in some ways to deep tissue massage/myofascial release.