Everything You Need to Know About Cupping Therapy

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola

Cupping therapy is an ancient traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) approach that is purported to boost blood flow and help the body fight pain and relax muscles. But does it work? There are those who swear by it — think Olympics champ Michael Phelps — and, now, Prevention explains the technique and talks about its risks and possible benefits.

The benefits are mostly what are reported by those who practice it or who have undergone the therapy, as there isn’t a lot of research confirming that it works. The risks, or side effects, include soreness, discomfort, burns and skin infections, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Also, actual damage could occur if you skin is too thin or if you have diabetes or a blood circulation disorder.

There are certain instances where cupping has been reported to help, though, for example, some with chronic neck and shoulder pain, arthritis of the knee, herpes zoster, facial paralysis and cervical spondylosis have reported satisfactory results in alleviating their conditions.

In cupping, suction cups of varying sizes are attached to the body. The suction draws stagnant blood to the surface of the skin and improves blood circulation through the tissues, which can speed healing — and, according to Reuters, sales of cupping therapy equipment rose by 20 percent after Phelps’ 2016 Olympics win.

There is at least one study, published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine earlier this year found cupping significantly reduced chronic neck and shoulder pain, compared to no intervention. In the cupping group, the intensity of the neck pain was reduced from a severity score of 9.7 to 3.6.

Among controls, pain was reduced from 9.7 to 9.5. The study also evaluated measurable physical effects, including changes in skin surface temperature and blood pressure. Both measurements showed statistically significant improvements among those who received cupping.

There also is a meta-analysis of 550 studies published in PLOS One that found cupping "is of potential benefit for pain conditions, herpes zoster, cough and dyspnea." So, could cupping work for you?

You'll simply have to try it before writing it off. Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest cupping can be a helpful adjunct to other therapies for pain. In some cases it may even work as a stand-alone treatment, although this is not the norm. The good news is, if it works, you'll notice a difference. And if it doesn't, no harm will come to you.

That said, I would strongly recommend going to a trained TCM practitioner if you decide this is a therapy you’d like to try. Licensed doctors of TCM have a minimum of 3,000 hours of training and know how to perform cupping safely and effectively.