Cupping: To Do or Not to Do?

Everything you need to know about cupping

(RxWiki News) Cupping, a type of traditional Chinese medicine, has been practiced for more than 2,000 years. But is it safe and effective?

Although this complementary treatment has been used for centuries, it is important to know what the process entails, what the research says and the associated safety concerns. Read on for more information.

What Is Cupping?

Cupping involves the placement of small cups on the body. Made of glass, ceramic, bamboo or plastic, these cups are placed on the skin in a way that creates suction.

There are three types of cupping:

  • Air cupping - The cup is placed on the skin. The vacuum is created because a suction device removes the air from the cup.
  • Wet cupping - The skin is punctured to draw a small amount of blood before the cup is placed on the skin.
  • Dry cupping - A cotton ball or similar item is soaked in alcohol, a flame is applied and it is then placed inside the cup before placing the cup on the skin.

Cups are typically applied on the arms, back, legs, and stomach and left on for several minutes.

Although it is not completely understood how cupping can help certain health conditions, it has been used for the following issues, among others:

  • Breathing problems
  • Arthritis
  • Stomach and intestine disorders
  • Swelling
  • Headaches

It is thought that cupping may help with certain health conditions because there are a lot of blood vessels in the skin and the suction causes the tiny blood vessels to burst. This is thought to increase blood flow to the area.

Some also believe that cupping can help open the pores of the skin, which allows the release of toxins.

What Does the Research Say?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health's (NCCIH) findings included the following:

  • Although there has been research on cupping, the majority of the research is of low quality.
  • The evidence to support the use of cupping to reduce pain is not very strong.
  • As for whether cupping can be helpful for other conditions, there is not enough high-quality research to make any conclusions.

Safety Concerns

The NCCIH listed the following safety concerns related to cupping:

  • Side effects may include bruises, burns, infections, scars, soreness and skin discoloration.
  • Rare side effects may include the following:
    • Bleeding inside the skull after cupping on the scalp
    • Anemia from blood loss (after repeated wet cupping)

The NCCIH also noted that cupping may worsen skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Because cupping involves the drawing of blood (especially wet cupping), the cupping equipment may become contaminated. Using the same equipment on multiple people without sterilizing it can spread hepatitis B and C.

The risk of contamination with blood is still possible with dry cupping because blood can be drawn accidentally, according to the NCCIH.

The Cleveland Clinic indicated that cupping should not be done on people who have underlying health conditions, are pregnant, bleed easily, have inflamed skin or have a high fever.

Speak with your health care provider if you have any questions about complementary treatments like cupping.

Written by Anyssa Garza, PharmD, BCMAS

Last Updated:
February 5, 2020