Cupping is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice dating back at least 2-3000yrs.
It's popular in many parts of the world and it's methods of application are as varied as are the reasons for use. But is it just a placebo? More trendy voodoo then functional treatment? More Gwyneth Paltrow than Michel Phelps? Lets explore.
In TCM cupping is used to treat the blocked flow of 'Qi' , or energy in the body. In this traditional method of 'fire' or 'dry cupping', cups are made of glass, but around 1000yrs ago there's records of them being made from animal horns, bamboo, or even clay. "Honey, just off to have some warmed up goat horns suctioned onto my back to clear this village fever"....Lovely. I'll bet the hygiene standards were nothing to write home about either. The glass cups are warmed with a flame to burn off some oxygen inside then placed upon the bare skin of the patient, where a natural suction occurs and lifts the skin up inside the cup. The longer the flame is held inside the cup before placement, the stronger the suction. It goes without saying that very strong suction can also come hand in hand with mild burns on occasion. Ouchie. The bruising that's left after treatment is thought to be a favourable outcome, removing toxins and bringing 'thicker blood' to the surface for the body to flush. Sounds a bit hocus pocus right? It gets better. 'Wet' cupping is a slightly different treatment. A lancet is used to prick the skin before the cup is applied, which draws blood out of the skin and into the cup. In TCM this practice is used to dispel toxins and cool inflammatory conditions. I've always been a bit sceptical about this method, but around a decade ago I met a great manual therapist from Russia who actually specialised in this technique. His clinic was always fully booked. He mainly saw patients with chronic pain conditions who returned for the relief they felt after treatment. I've tried to keep and open mind since.
It seems since westerners have adopted this practice, the method of application has conveniently changed, I'm not sure why, although I like to think it's because the risk assessments for using naked flames inside a clinic setting are a minefield. In western practice, cups are made from plastic and air suction is used to create the vacuum. The cups are placed on the bare skin, a handheld pump attached and the air manually pumped out to the required suction. Much less hazardous I feel, and reportedly more comfortable for the patient, although having had both, I do prefer the warmth of the glass cups to ease muscular pain personally. Horses for courses. Dry cupping allegedly loosens fascia and stimulates a healing response in the body, creating better cell to cell communication and promoting tissue relaxation. In an interview with the BBC after the RIO Olympics, Prof Edzard Ernst from the dept of complimentary medicine at the University of Exeter stated that cupping was "not a proven medical treatment". Prof David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist from University College London even dismissed cupping as "hocus pocus". So if these respected professionals won't back any claims about cupping, why do so many people go back for more than one treatment?
Surely we're just being robbed by charlatans who see our bottomless pockets? Patients return, it seems, because they TRUST what they feel. And they regularly report feeling better. Looser. Relaxed. Calm. Less stressed. Reduced pain. All these things are words I've heard in my own practice. People, in general, like cupping. The human body for whatever reason, responds to it. Now the science is out on exactly why, there's no trial to look at, no peer reviewed study. We could argue that it's the receptor cells we're stimulating or the placebo effect of patients believing it will help them because Gwyneth said it would, but at the end of the day, does it really matter? I don't entirely understand how the ins and outs of my dishwasher work, but my dishes are clean at the end of a cycle so I continue to use it.
Cupping isn't for everyone, but for those that it helps, long may it continue.