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Cupping for Pain

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Updated July 23, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Cupping is a procedure that involves warming a rounded cup and placing it upside-down over a part of the body. This placement creates a suction effect that holds the cup to the skin, and in turn helps boost circulation. In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is said to stimulate the flow of vital energy (also known as "qi" or "chi").

Uses for Cupping

In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is typically used to treat the following health conditions:

Cupping is also purported to restore healthy flow of qi and help correct any imbalances arising from illness or injury.

What Happens During a Cupping Treatment?

During a cupping treatment, the practitioner will place a flammable substance (such as herbs or alcohol) inside a cup, and then ignite that substance. When the fire goes out, the practitioner places the cup upside-down over certain qi pathways linked to the condition being treated. The cup is usually left in place for five to ten minutes, during which time blood vessels expand and increase circulation. Cupping is also thought to open up the skin's pores and promote detoxification.

In a procedure known as "wet cupping," the skin is punctured prior to treatment. This causes blood to flow out of the punctures during the cupping procedure, which is thought to clear toxins from the body.

Benefits of Cupping

To date, there is a lack of scientific research to support the use of cupping to treat any health condition. For instance, a 2009 research review sized up seven trials testing cupping in patients with pain (such as low back pain and cancer pain); results showed that most of the studies were of poor quality.

In another research review published in 2010, scientists analyzed five studies that tested the use of cupping in stroke rehabilitation. Although the review's authors found insufficient evidence of cupping's effectiveness in stroke rehabilitation, two of the studies did show that cupping offered some benefits to patients who had suffered stroke. For instance, cupping had favorable effects on shoulder pain and muscle strength.

Is Cupping Safe?

Although cupping is generally considered safe, it can cause pain, swelling, and/or burns in some cases. Cupping also leaves purple marks on the skin; these marks typically heal within several days.

Due to the lack of science behind cupping's safety or effectiveness, cupping cannot be recommended as a treatment for any health condition. If you're considering the use of cupping, make sure to consult your doctor before beginning treatment.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. "ACS :: Cupping". November 2008.

Kim JI, Lee MS, Lee DH, Boddy K, Ernst E. "Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review." Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 May 7.

Lee MS, Choi TY, Shin BC, Han CH, Ernst E. "Cupping for stroke rehabilitation: A systematic review." J Neurol Sci. 2010 Apr 30.

National Cancer Institute. "Definition of cupping - NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms".

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