It has existed for thousands of years, but the evidence is less than clear
Cupping is a recovery treatment used by sports stars and celebrities such as The Rock and Conor McGregor, but does it actually work?
It is designed to relieve pain, aid recovery and boost blood flow, and is characterised by big red blotches appearing on the skin after treatment is complete.
Looks and sounds pretty sophisticated, but its efficacy has long been the subject of debate.
To cut through the noise, we asked an expert for their input.
Ali Noorani MBBS BSc (Hons) MRCS FRCS is a Consultant Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgeon and an authority on sports injuries and recovery.
He has treated many elite athletes, including Premier League footballers and UFC fighters. He was the UK team doctor for the NBA London matches and orthopaedic doctor for both the NFL and the Rugby World Cup (2015).
JOE: Can you describe what ‘cupping’ is?
Noorani: It is an alternative therapy where special cups, usually made of glass (but sometimes from bamboo, earthenware or silicon) are placed onto your skin whereby a suction is created.
What are the purported benefits?
People use it to treat pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation, general wellbeing and as a type of deep tissue massage.
Does cupping work? If not, could it be described as pseudoscience?
Cupping therapy dates back to ancient times being used by the Egyptians, Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures. It is mentioned in the world’s oldest medical textbook so we know it has been in use as a treatment for more than 3,500 years at least!
There are certainly benefits, and it is likely to have also played an important role in the development of other treatments so it should be treated with the respect it deserves.
Are there particular occasions when it is most effective?
Certainly when used for general wellbeing there are many reported benefits, however there is no clinical evidence to suggest which occasions or ailments might be benefit the most.
What do the studies say?
There is very little scientific evidence out there to evidence the effectiveness of cupping. Certainly nothing as robust as would normally be done in clinical trials.
However, this lack of evidence does not mean it doesn’t work and it doesn’t have a positive effect. Just because you haven’t gone out and found the evidence does not mean there is no benefit.
Does the placebo effect play a part?
It may be that there is a placebo effect, but it is important to appreciate that the placebo effect is real. If you have cupping and you believe it will work it means that you have a positive outlook.
If a patient has a positive attitude towards treatment then it can have a strong physical effect. If you believe something is going to work, then it’s likely to make you feel good and possibly even have a positive benefit.
Are there any side-effects?
It does not appear to be dangerous and is low risk. However, there is an exception where cupping goes a stage further and they use fire, or wet cupping (which is when they use bloodletting and cut the skin).
I would advise some caution with those two variants as there is a higher risk of complications such as burns and infection. Otherwise some mild bruising is a normal side-effect.
What’s your overall verdict?
My overall assessment on cupping is that although it does not have full clinical evidence of producing results, that does not mean it doesn’t work.
So, if you see an expert with a great reputation who does cupping well it seems a safe and low risk treatment. My caveat is that of course if you had an injury or trauma then you need to make sure that you get that looked at properly by a medical professional to assess the injury before you start on any treatment plan.