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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH


I enjoy massages, and had heard about “cupping,” which is sometimes offered along with them. Massage I understand. It feels great and I believe that it is beneficial. Cupping, on the other hand, is unfamiliar, and it occurred to me that, without really thinking, I harbored a negative bias. That made it clear that it was time to investigate.

Cupping became more mainstream in this country during the 2016 Summer Olympics, when swimmer Michael Phelps competed with round bruises on his back. Cupping, however, can be traced to ancient Chinese and Egyptian medicine, and was first documented in about 1550 BCE. It may have first been used for lung conditions. Today, cupping is most frequently used for pain relief and musculoskeletal injuries, although it has also been used to treat skin diseases such as acne and hives, high cholesterol, migraine headaches, arthritis of the knee, and a weakened immune system.

Cups may be heated or not, and manually pumped to create suction. They are placed directly on the skin, and left for several minutes. The bruising and discoloration is simply due to broken blood vessels just beneath the skin. The theory is that the suction created by the cup encourages blood flow into that area, which promotes healing and reduces pain. The bruising and skin irritation heal within seven to ten days. There is a very small risk of infection, and some patients are sent home with an antibiotic cream.

What does Western medicine have to say about it? Research has been limited, and suggests that cupping may provide pain relief. However, the actual mechanism of just how drawing blood to the skin provides other benefits is unclear. Additional and better studies are needed. One major problem is that it is difficult to perform a high quality, double blinded, placebo trial. These trials are far easier when drugs are studied, where a study participant is unaware whether they received the treatment…or the placebo.

My own bottom line? Many complementary therapies, including Chinese and other Eastern medical techniques, have been shown to be effective. Cupping does not have an abundance of convincing evidence at this time. However, it does appear to be safe and might indeed help with pain, so if you are interested, go ahead and try it. I do urge you to use a practitioner who has been well trained and appropriately licensed.

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