Cupping for muscular pain

Cupping for muscular pain

The Olympics already feel like a distant memory and now we wait to see what the legacy of Rio 2016 will be. One thing that seems sure to stick in the mind, at least for now, is the age-old art of cupping. The result of this technique, namely the almost perfectly circular bruises, were worn by many athletes at the Games, with Michael Phelps probably being the most memorable of them all. 

With cupping almost guaranteed to be one of the most popular treatments of 2016 it seems only fitting that we take a closer look at it and discuss the benefits that we might get as a result.

There are basically two types of cupping: wet and dry. Wet cupping involves causing some sort of superficial injury to the skin and then placing a vacuum pump over the injury. Dry cupping is pretty similar it just doesn’t require you to puncture the skin. This makes dry cupping almost pain-free and, as long as it is done correctly, carries no risk of infection.

The circular bruises that we see on athletes, and famously on Gwyneth Paltrow many years ago, are the result of a hematoma, providing the suction is strong enough to draw blood to the surface. The cups used are circular and therefore so are the bruises, it’s that simple.

Traditional forms of creating the vacuum within the cup usually involved soaking cotton wool in white spirit and then setting it alight but for obvious reasons it isn’t recommended to try that at home. And nowadays proper treatment facilities can create this vacuum in slightly more technological ways. The superficial injury required for wet cupping can be done using a range of devices. For example, you might see people using needles similar to what you might find in acupuncture, or some people will just use a scalpel to make a small incision.

This is primarily a treatment for pain, usually to do with the neck, shoulders or back, which explains why Phelps sported them across the back of his torso. For a long time, due to the lack of real research, the evidence in support of cupping was anecdotal. And in a lot of cases, the feedback was positive. A lot of patients had stated that cupping did seem to ease the pain they felt.

Naturally, because this surge in popularity is so recent, we are still waiting for significant studies to come to light. The truth is that its positive response could just be down to the placebo effect. People are unlikely to try this unless they believe it is going to work for them and therefore they are more likely to say that it is helping them.

The positive effects could be down to something known as counter irritation, according to Professor Edzard Ernst. Ernst compares it to when you have a tooth ache and then accidentally hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer. While your thumb is hurting the chances are you have forgotten about your tooth ache. But give it enough time and providing you haven’t seriously damaged your thumb, the pain will subside and the tooth ache will soon return.

But none of that really matters to an athlete. The scientific evidence behind it is fairly irrelevant as long as it works for them. And in the world of anti-doping a form of treatment that requires no chemicals entering the body at all is about as safe as it can get. So you see why it is so attractive. Like I say, we wait to see the studies come in, and trust me, they will.

Ollie Lawrence
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