Traditional Chinese Medicine has utilized cupping for thousands of years. Western medicine thinks that cupping is a bit odd. Some think that cupping is all about the placebo effect.
What is cupping?
Cupping is the ancient clinical practice of creating a vacuum upon the skin using a cup or a jar. The cup can be made of glass, ceramic or wood. Often the cup is heated to create the vacuum or suction effect. But new cups can increase suction with pull plugs at the top. As a result, cupping can either be employed with or without heat.
The traditional method is to put a burning tissue or swab underneath the cup for a moment. This heats the inside of the cup. The cup is then placed onto the skin at the appropriate spot for a few minutes. Then the cups are simply removed.
Cupping is typically employed by acupuncturists, who will sometimes do this alternatively with acupuncture. Sometimes they just do cupping alone. This depends upon the indication of the source of the condition – the condition of the meridian or organ in question.
As such, the vacuum cupping will typically be placed upon a particular acupuncture point – determined by the ailment and the condition of the patient. Sometimes cupping will be done along a meridian. Other times it will be done on several different points on different meridians.
The effects of cupping are numerous. These include warming or stimulating meridian channels. Cupping can also stimulate blood and lymph circulation. In this way it can be employed to remove swelling and accelerate the healing process. And it can stimulate the flow of Qi.
Cupping can also become a little more aggressive depending upon the situation. An intense cupping can cause bruising. It can rupture some of the shallow capillaries in that area. These are clinically done on purpose – to increase the body’s healing response.
As such, cupping is often employed for all types of skin issues, muscular problems, paralysis, joint issues, and hypertension or other cardiovascular issues.
And as we will discuss here, cupping is also often employed for pain. In particular, chronic neck and shoulder pain, and fibromyalgia.
When shoulder and neck pain becomes chronic it can become debilitating. Because the neck and shoulders are key to the body’s circulation and central nervous system, this type of chronic condition can lead to a significant loss of mobility.
Fibromyalgia is the condition where pain can be located anywhere around the body. This also often results in a loss of mobility.
Cupping subjected to clinical research
New research from Taiwan’s Tzu Chi University has proven that cupping can significantly decrease neck and shoulder pain.
After a small pilot study, the researchers enlisted 60 patients for the full trial. All the patients had chronic neck and shoulder pain and had visited the university clinic for relief. They were treated in the University’s research laboratory. In the laboratory, the environment and the cupping technology could be controlled.
Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners conducted the diagnosis and treatment of each patient. The treatments also were assisted by a nurse. The acupuncture points utilized for the treatment were SI15, GB21 and LI15.
These points were also tested for skin surface heat temperatures as the treatments were conducted. Skin surface testing was done to determine the extent that raising the skin temperature had upon the effect of the treatment.
The researchers utilized the visual analog scale – or VAS – pain scale system to assess pain. This is the typical method utilized by clinical researchers around the world to judge the effectiveness of a pain treatment.
The researchers used the traditional method of heating the cups. After heating the inside, they placed each cup on the points for 10 minutes and then removed them. The treatment was done on one side of the body and then the other. So the total treatment time for each patient was 20 minutes.
The control group also came into the laboratory – but did not receive any cupping.
Cupping reduces pain
The pain testing didn’t just assess a single pain point. It assessed pain with movement. The patients were told to move their necks and shoulders in different ways while they responded with their pain level. This included rotating to each side and raising one shoulder and then the other.
The average pain intensity among both groups was 9.7 in the beginning of the study. After the treatments, the control group’s average VAS pain scores went down by 0.2.
But pain scores of the group treated by cupping went down significantly, to 3.6. This is more than a 60 percent decrease in pain on average from the cupping – a drop of 6.1 on a 10-point pain scale.
Cupping clinical mechanisms
Interestingly, the cupping did not increase the skin temperatures of the acupuncture points dramatically, but it surely did boost them. All points went up in temperature by about 2 degrees Celsius.
But this was not the mechanism of the cupping. According to the researchers:
“The cupping therapeutic method can cause vasodilatation and stimulate blood circulation to increase metabolism and accelerate the elimination of waste and toxins from the body.”
We must not forget the ability of cupping to stimulate the circulation of the lymphatic system, however. Lymph fluid removes toxins and employs immune cells, thus reducing edema – swelling. The lymphatic system is typically employed through muscle contraction. But cupping certainly stimulates the flow of lymph.
This is confirmed as the researchers spoke of the observational effects of the cupping among the patients:
“Due to vasodilatation and edema, histological changes are readily observable at the skin surface. After cupping effects often include erythema, edema, and ecchymosis in a variety of circular arrangements.”
Cupping and fibromyalgia
Other studies have found that cupping reduces pain. In a observational case study from Australia’s University of Western Sydney and Beijing’s Dong Fang Hospital, 30 fibromyalgia patients were treated with cupping for 15 days.
The research found the average pain score (again using VAS) went from 2.63 to 1.36 after the 15 days of treatment. The researchers also found that the number of tender points – locations of pain – went down among the patients, from an average of 12.57 to 9.33 pain locations.
The researchers stated:
“Medicinal cupping therapy was associated with a reduction in fibromyalgia symptoms for both pain ratings and number of tender points.”
Lee-Mei Chi, Li-Mei Lin, Chien-Lin Chen, Shu-Fang Wang, Hui-Ling Lai, and Tai-Chu Peng, “The Effectiveness of Cupping Therapy on Relieving Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2016, Article ID 7358918, 7 pages, 2016. doi:10.1155/2016/7358918.
Cao H, Hu H, Colagiuri B, Liu J. Medicinal cupping therapy in 30 patients with fibromyalgia: a case series observation. Forsch Komplementmed. 2011;18(3):122-6. doi: 10.1159/000329329.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.