I often see cupping therapy performed on South Korean television programs as if it were a safe medical treatment. According to Brian Dunning, there’s no scientific proof cupping in any form has any value.
I searched and searched for any clinical trials of cupping as a treatment for any disease, but there simply aren’t any. There is a large number of published articles in alternative medicine journals, nearly all from China, but none that come from any legitimate peer-reviewed journals. Part of the problem is that there is no specific condition that cupping is alleged to treat; even the Chinese articles are all over the map: herpes, muscle strain, “meridian” diagnosis, back pain, even the common cold. It’s pretty hard to design a proper clinical trial when there’s no specific claim of what the proposed treatment does.
However, there’s one very good reason that probably explains cupping’s popularity in the modern world, despite its lack of any credible value. Modern cupping practitioners usually sell the service along with a massage, often both before and after the cupping procedure. Massage is extremely relaxing. It feels great and is a proven treatment for stress, anxiety, plus any number of muscular injuries and other pains.
Moreover, massage actually has a mechanism by which it provides relief. Popular research performed at McMaster University in Canada and published in 2012 analyzed samples of muscle tissue both before and after brutal, tissue-damaging exercise, and compared muscles that underwent therapeutic massage with muscles that did not. The analysis provided the mechanism and underscored what physical therapists and massage therapists have known for decades, that massage significantly improves the healing of muscle. For a long time, it was believed that lactic acid buildup (a biochemical byproduct of working out muscles) was reduced by the physical action of massage, but the researchers found no evidence of that. Instead they found — and I’ll spare you the complex biochemical explanations, which are detailed in the paper if you want to look it up — that massage both reduces tissue inflammation and promotes cell regrowth.
Coupled with the relaxation benefits, massage is both a pleasurable and genuinely healthful experience. And this is the case even if you do combine it with beads and rattles, recanting of charms, scattering of chicken bones, or fire cupping. Don’t pay for both of them unless you really want to show off the bruises.
And so, it’s not surprising that conflating the cupping process with a before and/or after massage will result in a positive experience, which, coupled with its perceived essence of ancient wisdom, becomes a trendy thing to do. Being trendy is fine, if that’s your preference. But it remains important not to confuse massage relief with alleged beneficial effects of cupping. In addition to having a history of prescientific medicine, cupping is a fashion statement, and nothing more. Anyone who sells it to you with any other claim is either ignorant of their own profession or a quack.
Some forms of cupping, like “wet”, which involves cutting the skin, and “fire”, featuring open flame applied to the suction device, look patently dangerous. Indeed, according to WebMD, that the side effects of cupping are mild discomfort, burns, bruising, and skin infection. Unless one ignores those nasty results as just a small sacrifice for the bodily benefits, one has to ask why sporting a temporary tattoo that has to heal is any better than just a good massage. Simon Singh has also argued that there is no proof of any benefit, including a controlled study for pain relief.
Sometimes looks, even if exotic and eroticized by unscrupulous “oriental” therapies, are not deceiving: cupping is a fraud, and it’s torture.