If you have been watching the Olympics at all, you probably have noticed the results of cupping. And by that I mean the ridiculous red circles that can be found on many of the athletes. But, I mean if they’re doing it, it must work, right?!?! Well after some digging, I have the answer to that question. So let’s take a look at the history of poor decision making by Olympians, what cupping is and its supposed benefits, and what it actually does.
Pursuit Of Excellence
Olympic athletes are not the same as you and I. They will do anything to get the gold. That’s why over the years they have been the test subjects for many ridiculous health practices. They are willing to try anything, even if it’s nonsense. Athletes can be very superstitious and often believe anything they hear. In the past, they have brought us money wasting scams like Energy Bracelets, negative ions or energy frequency therapies, and the every popular kinesio tape. None of these remedies have been shown to work, and they all have risen and abruptly fallen out of vogue as soon as the athletes get wise to it. But is cupping going to make a rapid disappearance, or is it here to stay?
What Is Cupping?
At its core, cupping is a form of bloodletting intended to remove stagnant blood, expel heat, and treat high fever, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and pain. The process of cupping involves taking cups, which are usually glass but can also be plastic, bamboo or anything, are placing them on the skin, and reducing the air pressure in them via pumps or by heating them and causing cooling contraction. The cups are placed according to traditional acupuncture points. After the cups are removed, bruises remain.
Today, cupping is used for different purposes and advertised in ways that don’t involve the words “blood letting” for obvious purposes. Modern day cupping works by helping to align and relax qi. Back here on earth where reality is, cupping has been thought to draw blood to the affected area and produce hyperemia or hemostasis, which result in a therapeutic effect (1). Cupping can be sold to us by saying that the suction will remove undescribed and nonspecific “toxins” from the body, even though we don’t have toxin glands. And like other nonsense therapies, it has been claimed to treat and cure loads of ailments such as herpes, muscle strain, “meridian” diagnosis, as well as to increase blood flow, activate the immune system, cure back pain, and 999 other diseases (2).
Does It Work? You Better Believe It!
There is a ton of research on cupping. And out of all the ailments that it is reported to help, pain management is the only one that has a shred of evidence. A very tiny shred at that. Of course there is no credible evidence that it helps athletic performance, be it in swimming or any other sport. This is, in part, due to the fact that research into cupping is mostly negative or of poor quality and with high bias (3). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try! Even though currently, there is a lack of dosage guidelines or known effect which means practitioners are pretty much making it up as they go along doesn’t mean it won’t work. I mean, if pro athletes think it’s doing something even though it has no positive effect on the human body in regards to recovery or pain, then it must be working some other way right? If you’re asking that question, you would be right. The best explanation of how cupping works is through a psychological mechanism. In other words, cupping works because people think it works. The word placebo comes to mind. So even though the data says that it won’t work for anyone, if you believe hard enough it will work, great for you!
Whats The Worst That Could Happen
Okay. You decided that I am full of crap and that the appeal to antiquity is too strong on this one not to give it a try. So what’s the worst that could happen, you get a few bruises? Well when it’s all said and done, you don’t want to be one of the unlucky ones. With any treatment, there are side effects. Cupping has some nasty ones. You could end up with large holes in your back, or a hemorrhaged artery (4) or maybe something less serious like a burn or infection. Wet cupping does draw blood after all, and our skin is never all that clean. Cupping is no different than acupuncture, bloodletting, phrenology, or any other medical pseudoscience. The treatment is based in pre-scientific superstitions, and has simply been re-branded in order to more effectively market the treatment to modern customers.
If you’re looking to recover quickly after exercise, or perhaps for some pain relief, I suggest you skip the cups and the bruises and just get a nice massage. A good massage is relaxing, which is something we all need at times. But on top of this, it can significantly improve the healing of muscle, reduce tissue inflammation, and promote cell regrowth (5). Now there’s something to get excited about!
- Cao, H., Li, X., & Liu, J. (2012). An updated review of the efficacy of cupping therapy. PloS One, 7(2), e31793.
- Bamfarahnak, H., Azizi, A., Noorafshan, A., & Mohagheghzadeh, A. (2014). A tale of persian cupping therapy: 1001 potential applications and avenues for research. Forschende Komplementärmedizin (2006), 21(1), 42.
- Lee, M. S., Kim, J., & Ernst, E. (2011). Is cupping an effective treatment? an overview of systematic reviews. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 4(1), 1.
- Interv Neuroradiol. 2016 Aug 1. pii: 1591019916659264. Extracranial vertebral artery rupture likely secondary to “cupping therapy” superimposed on spontaneous dissection.
- Crane, J. D., Ogborn, D. I., Cupido, C., Melov, S., Hubbard, A., Bourgeois, J. M., & Tarnopolsky, M. A. (2012). Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage. Science Translational Medicine, 4(119), 119ra13.