Whether you’re a world-class athlete competing in the Rio Olympics, or a desk-ridden journalist with terrible posture, back and neck pain can be real occupational hazards.
To treat their sore muscles, U.S. competitors like swimming legend Michael Phelps and gymnast Alex Naddour — and this slouching science reporter — have all turned to an ancient form of therapy called cupping.
The technique involves placing small glass cups on the skin, then pulling them from the body to relax the muscles and boost blood flow.
The suction cups leave behind circular bruises, like the ones Phelps sported Sunday night in the men’s freestyle relay finals.
While cupping is a relatively common pain therapy treatment in Eastern cultures, it’s still a rare and little-studied practice in the United States.
Michael Phelps competes in the men’s 200m butterfly at the Rio Olympics, Aug. 8, 2016.
Image: Getty Images
But with Olympians sporting their purple discs like gold medals, cupping could soon grab hold with athletes, desk jockeys and other Americans suffering bone, joint and muscle pain, said Dr. Charles Kim, a pain management and rehabilitation specialist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
“Perhaps something like this will open up the American public and maybe encourage further research and oversight of cupping as a potential treatment, which will help a lot of people with musculoskeletal pains specifically,” he told Mashable.
So what is cupping?
Cupping comes in several bruise-inducing varieties. With dry cupping, therapists use cups that tug at, but don’t break, the skin. They can use cups with mechanical devices, such as hand or electrical pumps, to create suction. Or they can use fire cups, which use their heat for suction.
In wet cupping, a therapist will first puncture the skin using what looks like a toothbrush with little spikes attached; the suction cups slowly fill with blood.
The basic idea is that creating bruises will encourage the body to heal more quickly in those targeted areas. Dr. Kim said the process could be best described as a “controlled injury.”
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, bodily ailments are said to be caused by poor energy flow, a condition called “energy stagnation.” Cupping stimulates that energy flow and helps the body heal itself.
Dr. Kim, who is also a certified acupuncturist, said he performs cupping to help relieve his patients’ neck and back pain or chronic muscle spasms. Other practitioners may use it to treat fatigue or respiratory conditions, he said.
When done right, cupping is fairly painless and safe. The suction cups should feel like a gentle pull and nothing more.
Wet cupping is the riskiest approach because cutting the skin raises the risk of infections. Fire cupping could also potentially burn your skin.
A practitioner fixes a cup on a patient’s back during a blood cupping session on March 18, 2013 in Singapore.
Image: Getty Images
In all cases, leaving the cups on for too long, say over several hours, can make the skin necrotic, or “essentially dead,” as Dr. Kim put it. This is more likely to happen with do-it-yourself cupping kits that people use on themselves.
What does the science say?
Not much. Given the Western world’s relative lack of interest and experience with cupping, few rigorous scientific studies exist on the technique’s potential benefits, or how it actually affects the body.
Still, that lack of hard evidence isn’t stopping more people — including myself — from trying cupping.
My acupuncturist recommended dry cupping as a way to treat back and neck pain and speed up my healing process after an injury last year.
With the spine worthy of a body twice my age, I somehow acquired a bulged neck disc, sending weird pain and tingling across my shoulders and arms.
Liquid and congealed blood are seen inside the cups during a blood cupping session on March 18, 2013 in Singapore.
Image: Getty Images
While physical therapy helped with long-term healing, acupuncture provided short-term relief. With cupping, which I did a few times last spring, my neck pain virtually vanished in the one or two days immediately after the procedure, although the relief wasn’t permanent.
Maybe it was the placebo effect; maybe it really worked. Or maybe I just wanted Instagram-worthy bruises like Michael Phelps.
A 2014 study by the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine seemed to confirm my experience. It found that cupping therapy has a “potential positive short-term effect” on reducing the intensity of pain, compared with no treatment, heat therapy or conventional pain medications.
Separately, researchers worldwide have conducted at least 135 randomized controlled clinical trials on cupping from 1992 to 2010, according to a 2012 study published in the journal PLoS One.
In their analysis, the authors found that cupping therapy — combined with treatments such as acupuncture or medications — showed “significant benefit over other treatments alone in effecting a cure” for conditions such as shingles, acne, facial paralysis and age-related wear and tear of the spinal discs.
But the authors also found that of the 135 trials they reviewed, nearly 85 percent were at high risk of bias by the researchers, and many studies were of “low methodological quality.”
“Despite the large number of studies on cupping therapy…there remains a lack of well-designed investigations,” according to the PLoS One study.
The authors of the PLoS One study said that scientists should conduct higher quality trials with larger sample sizes “in order to draw a definitive conclusion.”
The American Cancer Society, citing the lack of concrete scientific data, said cupping’s perceived benefits may be more due to the placebo effect: Patients think it will heal their pain, so they think they feel relief.
“There is no scientific rationale for expecting any health benefit from cupping,” Dr. Ted Gansler, strategic director of pathology research for the American Cancer Society, said in a statement to Mashable.
He also dismissed claims that cupping can cure cancer or shrink tumors. While serious side effects from cupping are unlikely, he said “the most likely harm for people with cancer is that they might choose cupping instead of science-based treatments that are proven to help them live longer and relieve symptoms.”
Dr. Kim defended cupping as a useful therapy technique for pain management.
“Just because there’s no scientific evidence that has shown whether or not it works doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work or not,” he said, adding that he welcomed further research on cupping.
“When it comes to treatments that are not very well-known or are outside the box, everyone says it doesn’t work without really testing it,” he said.
Source:: Yahoo Science]]>