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Cupping to Treat Chronic Neck & Lower Back Pain

November 22, 2016

Cupping is the use of cups that are sucked to the specific acupuncture points on the back, by using physics. After being heated with fire, the air in the cup expands rapidly only to decrease by the same extent after the pre-heated cup is placed on the back.

The rapid reduction of the volume of air in the cup will create a vacuum that will not just glue the cup to your skin, but literally suck some of your skin into the cup and the capillaries in the skin to rupture. The user will generally see red cup-sized marks along the back.

It may seem like an outrageous concept, but there is some scientific evidence that does back this up. A study published in PLOS ONE in 2013 decided to test the efficacy of 12 weeks of a partner-delivered, home-based cupping massage. This was to be compared to the same period of progressive muscle relaxation in patients with chronic neck pain.

Primary outcome measure was the current neck pain intensity after 12 weeks. Secondary outcome measures included pain on motion, affective pain perception, functional disability, psychological distress, wellbeing, health-related quality of life, pressure pain thresholds and adverse events. Sixty one patients were randomized to cupping massage or progressive muscle relaxation. 

After treatment, both groups showed significantly less pain compared to baseline however without significant group differences. Significant effects in favor of cupping massage were only found for wellbeing and pressure pain thresholds. 

A letter published by Huang and colleagues from Taiwan argue that "the research results show that cupping therapy is promising for pain control and improvement of quality of life, and minimizes the potential risks of treatment" Huang et al. base this assessment on their review of one randomized controlled trial, six non-RCTs, 20 case reports and two mechanism-based reasoning studies.

In the RCT, the effective rate of the wet-cupping group was similar to that of the waiting-list group. Interventions in both group’s decreased pain, disability and acetaminophen dosage, but a significant decrease in pain intensity according to the McGill pain questionnaire and reduced consumption of acetaminophen were seen in the wet-cupping group.

It should be noted that these results are preliminary. Huang and the group demand that further studies are done, so that the role of cupping therapy can be directly determined.