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Science of Superstition, Does Cupping Therapy Actually Work?



A steady resurgence in alternative medicine treatments over the last twenty years has introduced a number of highly controversial treatment options into conventional medical practice. Proponents of alternative treatments argue that medical research has validated many of these types of treatments (a 2004 examination of the research showed that one-third of all alternative treatments have some type of published support), while opponents say much of this research is flawed, and that alternative treatments offer desperate patients false hope.

Typifying this concern is the number of cancer patients who turn to alternative therapies in search of a cure. One study found that approximately 31 percent of cancer patients use some type of alternative medicine to either cure or supplement their current treatment regimen.

This rise in patient reliance on alternative medicine has led many states to begin regulating the practice. While a common misperception of alternative medicine practitioners is of someone who bases their practice in folk knowledge and superstition, estimates suggest that nearly half of all alternative medicine practitioners are physicians. However, just because a treatment method is practiced by a physician doesn’t necessarily speak to its effectiveness.

Recently, one type of alternative medicine that has received a lot of attention is cupping therapy. But how does it work, and does the therapy actually possess any therapeutic benefits? Here’s what you need to know about cupping therapy.

What is Cupping Therapy?

Cupping therapy involves the placement of cups on the skin with the goal of creating suction. The cups used during treatment are usually made from such materials as glass, bamboo, or earthenware.

Proponents of cupping therapy argue that the suction the cups create helps to mobilize blood flow throughout the treated areas, which promotes healing. The practice of cupping therapy dates back to ancient cultures located in the Middle East, China, and Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the world’s oldest known medical texts, provides a detailed description of cupping therapies used by the ancient Egyptians as far back as 1500 B.C.

Does Cupping Work?

While the practice of cupping dates back thousands of years, Western medicine has always held the practice as more superstition than science. The American Cancer Society claims that no scientific evidence exists that supports cupping as a cure for cancer or any other type of disease and that claims of success using the treatment are mainly anecdotal.

However, a 2012 study published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLoS ONE suggested that cupping could offer patients more than just a placebo effect. Researchers from both China and Australia, who examined over 135 studies published on cupping therapy over a 19-year period, found that the therapy may actually be successful when used in conjuncture with additional treatment methods, such as medication or acupuncture.

Researchers found cupping successful at treating such conditions and diseases as acne, herpes zoster, cervical spondylosis, and facial paralysis. Despite these early findings, researchers still caution that more study is needed before any definitive conclusion can be reached.

Types of Cupping Therapy

While there are different forms of cupping therapy, the two most common treatment methods involve either dry or wet cupping. Dry cupping involves only the use of suction, while wet cupping combines suction and controlled medicinal bleeding.

In both forms of treatment, a flammable compound, such as alcohol or herbs, is placed and lit on fire inside of the cup. Once the flame is put out, the cup is placed on the patient’s skin. As the air inside of the cup begins to cool, a vacuum is created inside of the cup. The effect of the suction is to raise the skin, which begins to redden due to an expansion of blood vessels. Once the cup has been moved into position, it is generally left in place for 10 minutes.

In wet cupping, the cup is left in position for only about three minutes prior to removal. Once the cup has been removed, the practitioner will make several small cuts to the treated area. The practitioner will then repeat the suction process to remove small amounts of blood. Supporters of this type of treatment believe that cupping helps to remove harmful substances and toxins from the blood to encourage healing.

If you think that cupping therapy may be right for you, discuss treatment options with your doctor.