August 16, 2016
Viewers of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, may have found themselves pondering two burning questions: How do those swimsuits that the male divers wear not come off when they hit the water, and what are those painful-looking red circles all over the swimmers’ bodies?
The answer to the first question remains a mystery, but those confounding circles are caused by “cupping,” a 1,000-year-old Chinese healing practice that, among other objectives, is believed by some to aid in pain management. Before it became the rage at the Olympics, it was a trend among the celebrity circuit, with Justin Bieber, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Kardashian among devotees paying to be adorned with the unsightly crimson welts. But although the consensus is that the practice is generally safe, little is known about the efficacy of cupping, as its benefits have rarely been rigorously studied.
Cupping is the practice of suction with a small, sometimes heated, glass jar on a person’s skin across various trigger points (think acupuncture). The procedure creates a vacuum, raising the skin, and is believed to increase blood flow. Practitioners maintain that it helps soothe sore muscles and reduces inflammation, particularly after vigorous exercise.
A PubMed search of cupping reveals quite a few studies looking at its efficacy across many conditions, from osteoarthritis to shoulder and neck pain to postpartum perineal pain, although many are small and quite a few are uncontrolled.
In an uncontrolled study of cupping for nonspecific neck and shoulder pain in 61 subjects, mean scores on a numeric rating scale dropped from 7.02 (SD=1.8) at baseline to 3.7 (SD =2.2), a statistically significant difference (P<0.05) (Complement Ther Clin Pract 2016;23:30-33). A crossover study comparing cupping with acupressure for postpartum perineal pain four to eight weeks after delivery in 150 participants showed a mean pain intensity reduction from 37.5+6.8 on the Short-form McGill Pain Questionnaire to 11.1+6.1 immediately following the procedure, 6.9+4.7 at 24 hours and 3.8+3.6 at two weeks, also a statistically significant difference (P<0.01) (J Reprod Infertil 2016;17:39-46). In addition, in a randomized controlled study of 60 subjects, cupping was shown to statistically significantly reduce pain intensity scores from 9.7 to 3.6, compared with from 9.7 to 9.5 in the control group (P<0.001) (Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2016 Mar 17. [Epub ahead of print]).
The takeaway from the clinical literature? Cupping therapy is safe and it might be effective, but more high-quality research must be done before any true consensus on its benefits can be reached.
—Donald M. Pizzi