Chinese Medicine - Cupping Therapy


There’s a saying in Judo: If you don’t practice Judo while injured, then you don’t practice Judo. The same phrase could probably be applied to anyone who is serious enough to be worthy of donning the title “olympic hopeful.”


Welcome to the world of alternative medicine used by athletes.


If you tuned into the recent Olympics, particularly the swimming events, you may have noticed athletes with these crop circle-like bruises adorning various areas of their shoulders. The most notable instance was Michael Phelps’ shoulders which looked like time-worn polkadots.



Phelps getting the hand-pumped version
From Ancient China

What you’re witnessing are the after-effects of a traditional Chinese healing method known as bá guàn, or as it’s more popularly known: Cupping Therapy. 


Remember when you were a kid and you placed a cup around your mouth and chin, and got it to stay there by sucking hard with your mouth? Ever have a friend who did it too long and ended up with a purple-skinned goatee? That’s essentially what they’re doing with this technique.

The Method


In the actual technique, they place special jars or cups which can be made from glass, earthenware, silicone, or even plastic. Typically, they burn some alcohol soaked cotton to heat the air inside, which creates a vacuum in the container as the air cools. This pulls the skin away from the muscle and is said to help speed the healing process by pulling blood to the area. Don’t worry, they only put it on for a few minutes. That’s dry cupping, by the way.


Ever wanted to use water and tiny cuts to suck out toxins from your bloodstream? You’re in luck: they have the wet method of cupping where they leave the cup with hot water on your skin to cool, again creating a vacuum on your skin. In this method, a scalpel is applied to make tiny cuts on your skin and move the cup around on them in hopes of sucking out bad energy/chemicals. An alternative option is to use acupuncture needles to pierce the skin and get all those ugly buzzwords out. Afterward, they will give you an alcohol wipe-down to stop anything nasty getting back in.



Some of Phelp's Cupping Bruises
The argument I keep hearing is “they are used it in the olympics, so it must be legitimate.” If you’ve convinced by this argument, you should reconsider.

The Science


Sorry to break it to you, True Believers, but there is no legitimate science supporting the claims of this research. Rupturing blood vessels and the resulting internal bleeding (aka creating more damage) don’t seem like the best way to heal something else. In terms of the water method, there is no evidence that sucking poison through your skin is any more effective than letting your liver do what its designed to do. If anything, this seems like you might be opening the door to invite in the very thing you were trying to push out.


To be fair, there isn’t actually much research based around this subject. I found one meta-analysis - a fancy word for looking at the existing research - of 135 studies on the subject. It found that cupping might be effective when used alongside other treatments (e.g. acupuncture, medications) for the following ailments:

  • Shingles (aka Herpes Zoster)
  • Facial Paralysis
  • Cervical Spondylosis (aka Arthritis of the spine)
  • Acne
Bear in mind that the researchers of this meta-analysis also noted that “the studies were generally of low methodological quality.” In other words, they were badly designed and their conclusions likely can’t be trusted


Bruising can range from moderate...
Despite the above, I’m constantly told that it works, with some friends saying that it's one of those thing “that science can’t prove, but it works.” That’s… not how science works. In other words, this is probably the placebo effect.

Quick Point on Placebos

When people hear “placebo effect” they either think that it means there is no effect. Let’s be clear: The placebo effect is a legitimate, real effect that will give some medicinal aid to those who believe they’re receiving treatment. The difference, however, is that receiving treatment - even treatment that does nothing - makes your body react in a beneficial way. 

Take pills, for example. If you give one person the experimental medicine, another a sugar pill, and another nothing, you can easily see the weight of the placebo. It's the difference between the sugar pill (the "control") and the possible medicine will be the actual effect of the medicine, while the sugar pill effect minus the non-treatment will be the size of the placebo. In cupping's case, you have no control group. If we mimic the suction of the cupping treatment, that is basically the same as the cupping itself.


Bottom line: if you believe it helps, then it does. The main thing is off-setting the potential risks of a bunk treatment. And on that note…


Potential Side-Effects of Cupping


WebMD says:

  • Mild discomfort
  • Burns
  • Skin Infection
  • Bruises
...to heavy, and even to extreme (graphic photo at the bottom)
That last one is not so much a potential side-effect as a guaranteed one. Trust me, you can see them everywhere in Beijing.

Should You Try Cupping?

Sure, try it. But I’d only suggest the dry, non-acupuncture/scalpel one. It seems the downside to this treatment is mainly related to the methods that cut you. I think that’s convincing enough. Otherwise, it’s said to be quite safe with medical professionals, and the downside is negligible. BUT, even if you approach this in the safest way possible, there are risks. I’ve included a rather graphic photo at the bottom of how bad it can get if the treatment goes wrong. If you want to read more, check out the Wikipedia Article.


As for me, I’d rather just stick with massages.












Now here's some spacing to keep away the faint of heart from those who actually want to see gross pictures.















GRAPHIC PHOTO WARNING

Apparently this person had something that went wrong, burning the full thickness of the skin. That's right, straight-up necrosis setting in. I can't get the image out of my head.


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