Is Cupping Just Another Fad?

This week’s guest post comes from author Kelly Crawford.   During the Rio Olympics last summer you may have seen athletes with large, red circles covering their skin.  Scattered...
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This week’s guest post comes from author Kelly Crawford.  

During the Rio Olympics last summer you may have seen athletes with large, red circles covering their skin.  Scattered all over their bodies were what looked like perfectly round bruises and welts.  No, these were not the result of accidents or misadventures, but the temporary marks created by cupping therapy, also known as Myofascial Decompression (MFD). 

Although this may appear to be a recent trend, cupping is a traditional Chinese therapy that has been in extensive use for centuries.  The treatment is even mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient medical text written in Egypt around 1570 BC.

Olympic swimmers and gymnasts are among cupping’s latest and most visible adherents.  They are joined by increasing numbers of sports people who are turning to the therapy to help alleviate the pain and inflammation that result from overuse injuries, the damage caused by overusing or overstraining tendons, joints or muscles.    

How Cupping Works

Cupping is a form of acupuncture that can be administered in a number of different ways.  Whichever method is used by therapists, a vacuum is created inside each cup (made of glass, bamboo, silicone or earthenware) placed on a person’s body.  This results in suction forces that pull skin and blood vessels away from layers of muscle, tissue and tendons to allow blood to flow more freely.  As blood flow increases, tissues receive much-needed nutrients and oxygen.  This is believed to allow the body to heal more quickly.

The characteristic marks are called petichiae and are due to small capillaries rupturing and blood being drawn toward the skin.  They can stay on the body for up to ten days, or sometimes longer.

Multiple Benefits of Cupping

Cupping is thought to relax tense muscles, remove toxins and impurities, ease stiffness associated with chronic pain and speed up the healing of overworked muscles.  It is theorized that by promoting the flow of the body’s own anti-inflammatory chemicals it reduces inflammation.  It’s ability to relax you means that it can help lower stress and prevent many of the negative consequences associated with it. It is seen as a drug-free, non-invasive and natural way for the body to heal itself.  Traditional Chinese medicine holds that cupping helps the flow of energy, known as “qi” around the body to restore equilibrium. 

Many top-level athletes swear by the treatment, including Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time.  In fact, he is such a fan that he featured cupping in a video he filmed for a sponsor, and during his time in Rio posted an Instagram picture of him stretched on a table while a teammate placed pressurized cups on his legs. 

Despite its increasing use in sporting circles, some scientists question whether there is enough scientific evidence to support its efficacy.  While it is a relatively safe practice, they view applying suction to key parts of the body to restore the flow of blood as nothing more than pseudoscience, claiming that all the therapy does is leave a person covered in marks that resemble hickeys, or love bites. 

Effective Treatment Backed Up By Science

However, when you actually look at the scientific literature, you find numerous studies demonstrating the many benefits of cupping, particularly with regards to the management of pain.

In 2010, researchers affiliated with the Center for Evidence-Based Chinese Medicine at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine published a review of 550 clinical studies into cupping therapies for all diseases that were carried out between 1959 and 2008.  They pored over a huge volume of literature that included randomized control trials, clinical controlled trials and case reports.  Their conclusion after studying and analyzing this body of research was that the majority of studies demonstrated a potential benefit for pain conditions.

Another cupping review, this time in 2014 looked at 16 trials.  They involved 921 participants aged 18 or older who presented with acute or chronic pain.  Analysis of these trials revealed a short-term effect of cupping on reducing pain intensity compared to heat therapy, conventional drugs or no therapy at all.

A cupping review into the effectiveness of cupping therapy for low back pain performed an English and Chinese language scientific literature search of PubMed (a search engine comprising of millions of citations of published research) from 1980 through 2013.  Reviewers identified and examined trials and case reports and found that “the research results show that cupping therapy is promising for pain control and improvement of quality of life”. 

In An Investigation into the effect of Cupping Therapy as a Treatment for Anterior Knee Pain, published in the Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine, researchers investigated the efficacy of cupping in the treatment of knee injuries.  These are among the most common ailments affecting sportspeople. Volunteers with knee problems aged between 20 and 80 years of age took part in a clinical trial involving treatment, a questionnaire and a three week follow-up.  Although ony 15 volunteers completed the study, the results clearly showed that the level of pain perceived by subjects after therapy was significantly lower than pre-therapy.

Even though there is a growing body of scientific evidence to back up the claims made by cupping’s supporters, critics and sceptics reckon it’s not enough.  They have attacked some of the research saying it needs to be more rigorous and that studies were not well designed.  They just don’t believe them to be valid.

Cupping Success

That being said, athletes, bodybuilders and members of the general public have experienced great success with cupping, providing glowing testaments about the success they’ve enjoyed with it.  When interviewed about cupping by USA Today, American gymnast Alexander Naddour said: “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy”.

The treatment has survived for thousands of years and has been not only used for sporting injuries, but for a range of health issues, including back problems, gynaecological issues, ear ailments, lung diseases and a long list of other medical ailments.

Following the endorsement of some of the most successful athletes on the planet, more and more sportspeople are discovering for themselves how cupping therapy can ease the aches and pains associated with overuse injuries and boost recovery from the strain of training and competing.

References :

Beijing University of Chinese Medicine – http://bmccomplementalternmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6882-10-70

Science Direct – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095754814000040

Acupuncture in Medicine – Chia-Yu HuangMun-Yau Choong, Tzong-Shiun Li, : http://aim.bmj.com/content/31/3/336.long

Internet Scientific Publications : K Ullah, A Younis, M Wali. An investigation into the effect of Cupping Therapy as a treatment for Anterior Knee Pain and its potential role in Health Promotion.. The Internet Journal of Alternative Medicine. 2006 Volume 4 Number 1.http://ispub.com/IJAM/4/1/4969

Author

Kelly Crawford is passionate about health, well being, running and minimalist. As a competitive runner, she has insight into the struggles of balancing work-outs with good nutrition and injury prevention. She is a contributing writer for HardBoiledBody.com – a site dedicated to health, nutrition and fitness advice.

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