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Fitness & Health

12th Dec 2018

Does ‘cupping’ work, or is it a fashionable fad? A doctor weighs in

Athletes such as Conor McGregor and Michael Phelps have engaged in cupping, but what does it actually do? Here is what a doctor has to say

Alex Roberts

It’s all the rage in sporting circles, but what does the science really say about cupping?

Michael Phelps, Conor McGregor and a number of high-profile gymnasts have been known to engage in cupping, but how legit is this recent craze?

To cut through the evidence, JOE spoke to Dr. Leon Creaney, a consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine at The Manchester Institute of Health & Performance (MIHP).

JOE: We’ve all seen ‘cupping’, but what is it?

Dr. Creaney: “Cupping is a technique whereby a vacuum is created over the skin to encourage blood flow to an area.”

What are the supposed benefits of cupping?

“Cupping is believed to promote healing and pain relief.”

Many athletes and regular gym-goers with access to the treatment also believe it can aid overall recovery from intense training.

Alexander Naddour CuppingGymnast Alexander Naddour (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

What does the science say?

“There is very little high-quality published scientific evidence of the technique, from which to draw conclusions about whether it is effective.

“Recent reviews published in the BMJ Open and in a Brazilian medical journal suggest it may have moderate benefits in back and neck pain.” 

Can you explain why cupping works?

“Critics suggest it is probably a placebo. However, placebo effects are real – in terms of the pain killing effect (natural endorphin release) and positive psychological effects (dopamine and serotonin release).”

Is there a ‘best time’ to take advantage of the placebo effect?

“When no genuinely effective treatment exists for a condition, there is a stronger ethical argument for the use of placebos.

“The greater the ‘ritual’ around a placebo, the more intense the effect seems to be. Cupping certainly leaves a dramatic red mark on the skin, meaning patients can psychologically ‘buy-in’ to the treatment.”

Cupping therapyCupping therapy in action (Photo by iStock)

Who can benefit the most from cupping?

“In the world of elite and professional sports, small margins can differentiate between success and failure. Any psychological boost to the athlete may be beneficial.”

Does cupping come with any side effects?

The procedure is not without potential harms. There may be superficial skin burns and rupture of small blood vessels in the skin, but it is unlikely that any lasting damage is created.”

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