What is cupping therapy?

Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which suction is applied locally to the skin. Practitioners believe that the suction mobilises blood flow to promote healing in a range of conditions. Cupping therapy (also known as Hijama therapy) dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures.

cupping therapy

The earliest record of cupping is in the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, which describes how the ancient Egyptians used cupping therapy in 1550 BC. Archaeologists have found evidence in China of cupping dating back to 1000 BC.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates used cupping around 400 BC. The therapy in various forms has spread into medicine throughout Asian and European civilisations, and more recently has been encouraged by celebrity endorsement from athletes and actors.


Like acupuncture, cupping follows the lines of the meridians. There are five meridian lines on the back, and these are where the cups are usually placed to help 'open' these channels and relieve local congestion. The theory behind cupping is that it moves or stimulates your body's natural energy, also called 'qi'. Sometimes cupping is used in conjunction with acupuncture. Few scientific studies have been conducted on the validity of cupping as an alternative medical practice. Many of the studies have not reached a conclusion on its effectiveness, or do not support cupping therapy.

Western medical practitioners have suggested that reports of the effectiveness of cupping may be attributed to a placebo effect. While cupping therapy is considered a safe, non-invasive procedure, the outcome does not always meet the expectation of therapists and patients.

A recent report that some players in New York Mets baseball team found cupping helpful for sports injuries prompted Dr Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, to say there is “zero evidence that cupping has any kind of positive role in medicine” and that any benefit is more likely to be psychological. She pointed out that, unlike cupping, holistic therapies such as acupuncture have proven effective in medical tests. 

What can be treated with cupping therapy? 

Nowadays, an increasing number of patients have shown an interest in cupping therapy for the treatment of low back pain.

A 2013 review of the medical literature by researchers in Taiwan, who looked at 10 studies conducted between 2000 and 2012, found that cupping therapy is promising for pain control and improvement of quality of life, but concludes that further studies are needed to determine the potential role of cupping therapy to treat low back pain.

A 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE also suggests that cupping therapy may have more than a placebo effect. Australian and Chinese researchers reviewed 135 studies on cupping therapy between 1992 and 2010 and concluded that it may be effective when combined with other treatments, such as acupuncture or medication, in treating diseases and conditions such as herpes zoster, acne, facial paralysis and cervical spondylosis.

However, they acknowledged that many of the studies reviewed may have contained some bias and that better studies are needed to reach a definite conclusion. Likewise, a specialist at the Mayo Clinic in the US concludes that, while some of the available studies do suggest a possible role for cupping in treating fibromyalgia, the definitive answer to its actual role will have to wait for larger and more rigorous studies to be completed.

The British Cupping Society says cupping therapy can be used to treat: blood disorders, such  as anaemia and haemophilia; rheumatic diseases, such arthritis and fibromyalgia; fertility and gynaecological problems, and skin problems, such as eczema and acne. Cupping therapy has also been advocated for cancer, although the American Cancer Society says that available scientific evidence does not support cupping as a cure for cancer or any other disease. Reports of successful treatment with cupping are mainly anecdotal rather than from research studies, according to the ACS.

Types of cupping

Broadly speaking there are two types of cupping: Dry cupping. Suction cups are placed on the skin and a machine is used to suck gently on the skin. The vacuum pulls the skin part of the way into the cup. The cup is left in place for a few minutes and then removed, leaving a red, circular welt.

Wet cupping. This involves using a suction cup and pump for about 3 minutes on the treatment area. When the cup is removed small superficial skin incisions are made and a small quantity of blood drawn out.

According to the British Cupping Society, wet cupping is considered to offer a more “curative treatment approach” while dry cupping is a more 'therapeutic and relaxation approach'.

Side-effects of cupping therapy

Complications such as anaemia and skin pigmentation have been reported. The British Cupping Society strongly recommends that treatment should only be sought from health professionals. When carried out by health professionals trained in the practice the Society says cupping is relatively straightforward and very safe.

Possible side-effects include mild discomfort, bruising, burns and skin infections.

Cupping therapy should be avoided by the following:

Pregnant or menstruating women

People with metastatic cancer

People with bone fractures or muscle spasms

Cupping should not be applied to parts of the body where there is a deep vein thrombosis, an ulcer, an artery, or a pulse that can be felt.

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