Cupping therapy may be an effective way to manage back pain. It is not a new practice. It has been around for thousands of years and is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine—or TCM—as well as other ancient healing practices. However, it has become popular in the past few decades with the rise of other alternative therapies. Most recently, cupping therapy was put in the limelight when multi-medal Olympic athlete Michael Phelps was seen with purple spots all over his body in Rio. These marks being a temporary result of the therapy.
An Introduction to Cupping Therapy
Cupping therapy is a holistic approach to removing tension from the body and get energy pathways flowing again. As mentioned in Acupressure for Back Pain, alternative therapies like TCM, believe that the body can heal itself when energy—or chi/qi—is able to move freely within the body. The suction created by the cups is meant to stimulate and break up blockages in the body. In turn, relieves tension and promotes healing.
How IT Works
There are three different types of cupping: dry, wet and fire. They all use suction to gently draw the skin away from the muscles. The most common materials used for cups are glass and plastic. They are orb-shaped objects of varying sizes. Traditionally heat is used to create suction inside the cups. However, special cupping pumps have been created to mimic the effects of more traditional methods.
When the cups are removed it is common for dark spots to remain. This is the result of burst capillaries; a result of the suction. These spots usually disappear in 10 days time. It is very similar to what happens when you give someone a hickey.
Dry cupping is performed by heating up one or multiple cups before placing them on the skin. As the air inside the cups cools, the skin is drawn up into the cup. This can also be done without heat through the use of a special pump. The pump draws air out of the cup through an opening in the top.
The cups are then left for five to 15 minutes before being removed. Sometimes, cups will be placed over an acupuncture needle for added stimulation. When oil is placed on the skin, cups can be moved around. This creates a more dynamic treatment that is able to target more areas of the body.
Wet cupping is similar to the dry option. The main difference is that the cups are removed halfway through the treatment. At this point, small superficial incisions are made using a special scalpel across the area where the cup was. The cup is then replaced and the resulting suction draws out a small amount of blood.
Fire cupping involves soaking a cotton ball in 99% alcohol and lighting it on fire. Using forceps, the cotton ball is placed inside a cup. Once the cup has been properly heated, the cotton ball is removed and the cup is placed on the skin. As the air cools, the space inside the cup shrinks creating the desired suction effect. Again, oil can be added to the skin beforehand to perform a moving version of the treatment.
Cupping and Back Pain
Whether or not this therapy does, in fact, realign the energies of the body, it does help to relax and relieve tension. A 2012 study found that cupping helped to relieve more neck tension compared to Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. PMR is done by the patients consciously tensing and relaxing various muscles. After the trial, people who had received cupping therapy reported less sensitivity in the treated areas. Researchers noted that more studies need to be done to clarify the benefits of cupping therapy.
The Placebo Effect
Some health professionals believe that cupping therapy only produces a placebo effect. That being said, there are benefits that come from placebo effects. If the mind believes the body is more relaxed, the body responds in kind. So while researchers look deeper into the specific science behind cupping therapy, it might be worth trying this therapy to help manage your back pain. While it may not help you to win a gold medal at the Olympics, it may just be the solution to the back pain relief you are looking for.
Reynolds, Gretchen, and Karen Crouse. “Search Well SEARCH MOVE What Are the Purple Dots on Michael Phelps? Cupping Has an Olympic Moment.” The New York Times. August 8, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2016. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/what-are-the-purple-dots-on-michael-phelps-cupping-has-an-olympic-moment/?_r=0.
“Cupping Therapy.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 27, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupping_therapy.