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cupping

When my family and I were at the beach last summer, I noticed one of them had marks on their back. They looked like bruises, but were shaped like perfect circles.

These bruises seemed to be perfectly spaced. So I had to ask about it.

They said that their massage therapist mentioned there might be some slight bruising after the cupping treatment they received.

At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the procedure, so I asked, “What’s cupping therapy?”

They said that the therapist put heated silicon cups on their back to create a suction-like effect. This was designed to help with some of their chronic pain. I asked if it helped, and they said that this was their first time trying it, so they weren’t sure yet.

Since then, I've kept forgetting to ask whether the therapy was helping. Even if I did remember, this would be considered anecdotal evidence anyway.

There is some promising research showing that cupping therapy may help with certain conditions, which I’ll explain.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 950 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


History of Cupping Therapy

First, a bit background:

Cupping therapy is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine. It’s used around the world and has been around for centuries. It is believed that the Greek historian, Herodotus mentions cupping as a prescribed practiced back in 400 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).

In the 19th century, cupping therapy was reportedly used by healers in monasteries. To this day, some cultures view cupping therapy as way to restore the flow of “Qi” (“CHEE”). Qi is considered to the source of our energy or life source. The basic idea behind cupping is this: therapists apply a heated cup to the skin. By heating the cup, the goal is to create a vacuum-like effect. As a result, this is supposed to improve blood flow. More blood flow to these areas of the body potentially means better healing.

What is Cupping Therapy Used For?

Cupping therapy has been used to treat everything from headaches and neck pain, to poor appetite and indigestion, and even narcolepsy. I should mention there are different types of cupping methods.

It is believed that there are 10 commonly used cupping methods. I won’t list them all, but to give you an idea: there’s light cupping, strong cupping, moving cupping, needle cupping, hot needle cupping, water cupping, herbal cupping, and so on.

Cups have been made of silicon, glass, metal, bamboo and even gourds. Silicon is often preferred because of its flexibility, so it can easily cover different areas of the body.

What are the different types of Cupping Therapy?

There are also different shapes and sizes of cups. There are the traditional circular-shaped ones but also bell-shaped cups. And the openings may range anywhere from 1 to 3 inches across. In the western world, wet and dry cupping are most often used. Here, the therapist will put something flammable in a cup and set it on fire. This flammable substance could be alcohol, herbs, or paper or something else altogether. As the fire goes out, the cup is placed upside down on the skin and left there for 3 minutes. Again, this is designed to create a vacuum-like effect. The therapist may even move the cups along the skin to create a massage-like effect.

Does Cupping Really Work?

Here’s what the research says about cupping therapy. A randomized controlled trial found that cupping massage is no more effective than other types of therapy, like progressive muscle relaxation, in reducing chronic non-specific neck pain. But other randomized controlled trials have found that cupping massage was effective in reducing pain and improving quality of life in those with chronic neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

A meta-analysis, which is where researchers look at a bunch of already published studies and conduct their own analysis, found that cupping therapy may actually help with pain management.

Here’s the trouble though: these published studies have used different types of cupping therapies. This makes it difficult to know which type of cupping therapy may be most helpful. There are some reported side effects from this treatment.

Luckily, most of these are minor and are confined to the area where the cups touch the skin. The most commonly reported side effects are burns and bruising (like what I saw on my family member at the beach). There is the potential for skin infections, but this isn’t very common.

Should I Try Cupping?

When we don’t have enough research to know whether something is effective, here’s what I recommend: if it’s helping you and not causing you any harm, continue. If you find it unpleasant or too costly, there may be other ways to achieve these same effects.

By the way, if you'd like to read more posts of a similar topic, you can check out my recent blog post on kinesiology tape when it comes to pain management in sports.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 950 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik leads the Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program and teaches core courses at Bastyr University California. He has a Doctorate in Public Health from Loma Linda University and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist from the American College of Sports Medicine.Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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