How Cupping Could Bring Relief for Fibromyalgia
By Adrienne Dellwo Medically reviewed by Arno Kroner, DAOM, LAc Updated on October 24, 2020
Fast forward 1,700 years or so, and cupping is gaining public acceptance and the attention of some medical practitioners in the West. Awareness was dramatically heightened when U.S. swimmer extraordinaire Michael Phelps showed up at a 2016 Olympic event in Rio with round hickey-like marks all down his back.
While Western medicine hasn’t delved into cupping very much yet, we do have some research from China on cupping as a fibromyalgia treatment, and early results appear to be positive.
What Is Cupping?
The traditional method of cupping involving little glass globes that look like the mini fish bowls pet shops keep bettas in. The practitioner puts a small amount of something flammable (such as rubbing alcohol or herbs) inside the cup and lights it on fire. That depletes the oxygen inside the cup.
Then the practitioner turns the cup upside down and places it on your skin. The air inside the cup then cools down, which creates a vacuum. The vacuum causes your skin to dome up inside the cup, which makes the blood vessels expand and create the signature round suction marks.
Of course, glass and flame aren’t the safest materials to work with. Because of that, some practitioners have left the globes and flammable materials behind in favor of plastic cups that attach to a pump. They simply put the cup on your skin and squeeze the pump a few times to get the suction going. The effect is the same, only without the risk of burns.
TCM teaches that cupping opens up the pores, stimulates blood flow, and balances your qi (pronounced “chee”), which is the flow of energy through your body. It’s often combined with acupuncture.
In China, cupping has long been used to treat a variety of conditions, including:
Arthritis and other types of pain
In the West, we don’t yet have research on the physiological effects of cupping or what conditions it may be effective at treating.
Cupping for Fibromyalgia
The first Chinese research on cupping as a fibromyalgia treatment was published in 2006. Researchers used acupuncture, cupping, and the drug amitriptyline in the treatment group and amitriptyline alone in the control group.
They concluded that the acupuncture+cupping+drug group improved significantly more than the drug-only group when it came to both pain and depression.
A similar but larger study in 2010 divided participants into three groups:
Researchers said group 1 fared best, suggesting that both the drug and the TCM were effective and were able to complement each other.
A 2010 review of literature on TCM for fibromyalgia mentioned positive results of cupping but said that TCM therapies needed to be tested in larger studies with better designs than the early work.
A 2011 study looked at cupping alone. Thirty people with fibromyalgia were given cupping therapy for 10 minutes a day for 15 days. Researchers looked at pain and tender-point count before, during, and two weeks after treatment.
They concluded that cupping reduced both fibromyalgia pain and the number of tender points and that their findings warranted a placebo-controlled clinical trial.
Is Cupping Right for You?
Cupping is considered a generally safe treatment when it’s performed by a qualified practitioner. It’s often performed by acupuncturists and massage therapists.
You shouldn’t get cupping treatments when you have a high fever, if you have convulsions, or if you bleed easily. It also shouldn’t be done on inflamed skin.
With fibromyalgia, many people have a type of pain called allodynia, which means your nervous system turns normally non-painful sensations into pain. Because of that, you may experience more pain than someone else during cupping. You may want to make sure your practitioner doesn’t put cups on areas where you frequently have allodynia.
If you want to try cupping, talk to your doctor about it first. If you decide to go ahead with it, make sure you’re getting it from a reputable practitioner.
Pay attention to how you feel in the days after a cupping treatment to see whether it seems to be triggering any symptoms.
Keep in mind that cupping appears to be an effective complementary treatment. Don’t expect it to replace your medications or other treatments. Instead, consider it one more weapon in your arsenal against fibromyalgia symptoms.
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