“[Cupping’s] been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.” –U.S. gymnast Alexander Naddour, for USA Today
Chinese medicine gets its 15 minutes of fame
Yup, I’m pretty sure everyone and their mother has been seeing the articles coming out this week on cupping. It’s nice to see folks interested! Funnily enough, it was only in their July/August edition that cupping also received front-page coverage in the Massage and Bodywork Magazine. Clearly, to quote Laura Entis in her Fortune article, “cupping is having its own golden moment“!
What is cupping?
In Chinese medicine, cupping is often used as an adjunct modality to acupuncture. However, this therapy is not unique to Chinese culture. WebMD cites, “It dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. One of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how the ancient Egyptians used cupping therapy in 1,550 B.C.” Regardless of country of origin, all cupping seems to share the same method: Applying suction cups onto the skin, typically with the intention to clear stasis and/or toxins.
For specifics on tools and methods used in Chinese medicine, I encourage you to read: “Cupping therapy: A prudent remedy for a plethora of medical ailments.”
What are the benefits of this therapy?
What Chinese medicine says
We have a saying, “通则不痛，痛则不通”: Where there is free-flow, there is no pain; where there is pain, there is no free-flow.” Simply put, for us, cupping restores proper circulation of blood and oxygen to the tissues, while also being able to clear internal heat, cold, damp or toxins.
In fact, the marks left by the cups provides us yet more diagnostic feedback about the state of the body’s health and/or disease. In his article, “A Cupping Mark is Not a Bruise,” author Bentley includes some beautiful photographs of different types of skin responses due to toxin or stasis, etc.
Patients often describe the sensation of cupping as feeling like a comfortable ‘tightness’ followed by a relaxed ‘openness’ once the cups are removed. Despite all appearances, the resultant marks are not typically sensitive to the touch at all.
What studies say
While more rigorous studies are necessary to draw hard conclusions, a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis (PLoS One) as well as 2012 updated review of 135 studies on the modality (Plos One) have concluded the therapy could be effective in treating:
- Cervical spondylosis
- Facial paralysis
- Herpes Zoster
- Low back pain, chronic (in the short-term)
- Neck pain, chronic (in the short-term)
Is it just placebo effect?
I’ve seen articles recently try to discredit the benefits of this modality, chocking them up to placebo. I have found cupping to be so helpful for me personally, I can’t imagine caring either way! I think, if we could rely on the power of the mind alone to make our pain disappear – wouldn’t that be a good thing? (And if you could do that without the help of cups, wouldn’t that also be a good thing?)
I do think the power of thought plays a distinctive and major role in our health and disease outcomes. In this way, I wonder, is the placebo effect ever not in effect? To this point, I’d like to refer you to a recent article in the NYT highlighting the ‘placebo effect’ of useless surgery (e.g. spinal fusion and meniscus surgery), in which they concluded:
“The [arthroscopic partial meniscectomy] surgery offered little to most who had it. Other studies came to the same conclusion, and so did a meta-analysis published last year of nine clinical trials testing the surgery. Patients tended to report less pain — but patients reported less pain no matter what the treatment, even fake surgery.”
The placebo effect isn’t just something that affects Chinese medicine outcomes, but all medicine outcomes. Why? Because patients are the common denominator. Don’t discredit your role in healing!
Are there any cautions?
Absolutely. Pregnant women are not to get cups on their abdomen or low back. Cupping is also not indicated for those with blood clotting concerns, ulcers, convulsions, and edema, among other conditions. Not sure if it’s for you? Ask Melissa.