Suction cups are a treatment for pain that, like acupuncture, comes from traditional Chinese medicine (MTC). Experts say it has been used at least until the fourth century.
A rapid advance of 1,700 years or so, and is gaining public acceptance and the attention of some doctors in the West. Awareness increased dramatically when the extraordinary American swimmer Michael Phelps showed up at a 2016 Olympic event in Rio with round marks similar to lollipops all over his back.
While Western medicine has not yet deepened much in the suckers, we do have some research from China on the suckers as a treatment for fibromyalgia, and the first results appear to be positive.
What are the suction cups?
The traditional cupping method that involves small glass balloons that look like mini fish tanks in pet stores keep bettas inside. The practitioner puts a small amount of something flammable (such as rubbing alcohol or herbs) inside the cup and ignites it on fire. That depletes the oxygen inside the cup.
Then, the practitioner puts the cup upside down and places it on his skin. The air inside the cup cools, which creates a vacuum. The vacuum causes your skin to accumulate inside the cup, which causes blood vessels to expand.
That is what leaves the round suction marks that make it look as if it had been attacked by an octopus.
Of course, glass and flame are not the safest materials to work. Because of that, some practitioners have left behind balloons and flammable materials in favor of plastic cups that are attached to a pump. Simply place the cup on your skin and squeeze the pump several times for the suction to work. The effect is the same, only without the risk of burns.
TCM teaches that the suckers open the pores, stimulate blood flow and balance their qi (pronounced “chee”), which is the flow of energy through your body. It is often combined with acupuncture.
In China, cupping cups have been used for a long time to treat a variety of conditions, including:
Arthritis and other types of pain.
In the West, we still do not have research on the physiological effects of suckers or on what conditions may be effective in treatment.
Suction cups for fibromyalgia
The first Chinese research on suction cups as a treatment for fibromyalgia was published in 2006. The researchers used acupuncture, cupping cups and the drug amitriptyline in the treatment group and amitriptyline alone in the control group.
They concluded that the acupuncture + cupping + drugs group improved significantly more than the drug-only group in both pain and depression.
A similar but larger study in 2010 divided the participants into three groups:
Acupuncture + cupping + amitriptyline
Acupuncture + cupping
The researchers said that group 1 was better, suggesting that both the medication and the TCM were effective and could complement each other.
A 2010 review of the literature on MTC for fibromyalgia mentioned the positive results of cupping, but said that MTC therapies should be tested in larger studies with better designs than the initial work.
A 2011 study analyzed the suction cups alone. Thirty people with fibromyalgia received cupping therapy for 10 minutes a day for 15 days. The researchers analyzed the pain and the count of sensitive points before, during and two weeks after treatment.
They concluded that the suction cups reduced both the pain of fibromyalgia and the amount of tender points and that their findings justified a placebo-controlled clinical trial.
Is cupping right for you?
Suction cups are considered a generally safe treatment when performed by a qualified professional. They are often done by acupuncturists and massage therapists.
You should not receive cupping treatments when you have a high fever, if you have seizures, or if you bleed easily. Nor should it be done on inflamed skin.
With fibromyalgia, many people have a type of pain called allodynia, which means that their nervous system converts normally non-painful sensations into pain. Because of that, you may experience more pain than another person during cupping. You may want to make sure your healthcare provider does not put cups in areas where you frequently have allodynia.
If you want to try suction cups, talk to your doctor first. If you decide to go ahead with this, be sure to get it from an accredited professional.
Pay attention to how you feel in the days after a cupping treatment to see if it seems to be triggering any symptoms.
Keep in mind that suction cups seem to be an effective complementary treatment. Do not expect to replace your medications or other treatments. Instead, consider it another weapon in your arsenal against the symptoms of fibromyalgia