“THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE” – this quote is commonly attributed to P.T.Barnum. If he really coined the sentence, he certainly did not think of the little cups sucking in the skin of patients undergoing cupping therapy. Yet, the recent media coverage of cupping made me think of this quote. The suckers here are not the therapeutic devices employed for cupping but the athletes, the journalists and the general public.
In my experience, athletes are often very worried about their body. This is perhaps understandable but, at the same time, it makes them the ideal victims of all types of charlatans. I am therefore not really surprised to see that some Olympic athletes fell for cupping. They want to use every means allowed by the doping rules to enhance their performance. Cupping therapists claim all sorts of strange and unwarranted things, and some athletes seem to be gullible enough to believe them. Belief can perhaps not move mountains, but it might give you the edge in an Olympic competition.
The ‘beauty’ of cupping when applied to an athlete’s body is that its traces are so publicly visible. During Olympic games, this means that the entire world knows within hours about the cupping-habit of an athlete. What could be more exciting for journalists than these odd cupping marks decorating the muscular bodies of some Olympic athletes? If they are not worth a good story, what is?
There is hardly a newspaper on the planet that did not jump on this band-waggon full of snake oil – there is a sucker born every minute! Nothing wrong with reporting what is happening at the Olympic games, of course. But what has sometimes been reported in the press about cupping beggars belief. Rarely have I read so much nonsense about an alternative therapy in such a short time.
Do you need an example? The DAILY MAIL is as good – or rather bad? – as most; this is what the DM published yesterday on the subject: Chinese media have been cheering cupping’s appearance at the Olympics as proof of the value of traditional culture, with both the official Xinhua news agency and Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily touting the soft-power benefits. “Chinese traditions and products proliferate Olympic village”, read one headline on the People’s Daily website. Ding Hui, manager of the Lily Spring Health & Spa in Beijing, said she has seen a 30 percent jump in clients asking for cupping treatment since the Olympics started. “Even though Chinese people have known about it for a long time, they see a great athlete does it and see it really works,” Ding said. “For athletes, they build up harmful lactic acid in the body and cupping can help relieve it.”
You might think that, when reporting about a weird therapy, journalists have little options but to interview weird ‘experts’ relating cupping to even weirder ‘energies’, ‘life forces’, ‘meridians’, yin and yang, TCM, etc. But you would be wrong. They do of course have other options; they would only have needed to log on Medline to find hundreds of references related to the subject. If they had done that, they would even have found an abstract of mine that might have answered many of their question and would have clarified many of the questions about the scientific evidence for or against cupping. Here it is:
The objective of this study was to assess the evidence for or against the effectiveness of cupping as a treatment option for pain. Fourteen databases were searched. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing cupping in patients with pain of any origin were considered. Trials using cupping with or without drawing blood were included, while trials comparing cupping with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials with cupping as concomitant treatment together with other treatments of unproven efficacy were excluded. Trials were also excluded if pain was not a central symptom of the condition. The selection of studies, data extraction and validation were performed independently by three reviewers. Seven RCTs met all the inclusion criteria. Two RCTs suggested significant pain reduction for cupping in low back pain compared with usual care (P < .01) and analgesia (P < .001). Another two RCTs also showed positive effects of cupping in cancer pain (P < .05) and trigeminal neuralgia (P < .01) compared with anticancer drugs and analgesics, respectively. Two RCTs reported favorable effects of cupping on pain in brachialgia compared with usual care (P = .03) or heat pad (P < .001). The other RCT failed to show superior effects of cupping on pain in herpes zoster compared with anti-viral medication (P = .065). Currently there are few RCTs testing the effectiveness of cupping in the management of pain. Most of the existing trials are of poor quality. Therefore, more rigorous studies are required before the effectiveness of cupping for the treatment of pain can be determined.
With just one further click on their keyboard, they would have been able to read the full text of my article which cautioned in no uncertain terms: The number of trials and the total sample size are too small to distinguish between any nonspecific or specific effects, which preclude any firm conclusions. Moreover, the methodological quality was often poor.
Sadly, few journalists seemed to have bothered to do this tiny bit of research. Why? Surely, journalists are trained to investigate their subject before putting pen to paper! Yes, most of them are, but a headline like THE EVIDENCE FOR CUPPING IS FLIMSY does not sell newspapers. The public wants something much more interesting – there is a sucker born every minute!
And what should be wrong with that? People deserve a bit of an entertaining story about their Olympic idols! Perhaps, but there is a downside, of course. The media-hype of the last week will create a demand. The general public will now want the very therapy that helped athletes win gold medals (never mind that it didn’t). Thanks to the media, cupping is now destined to become the alternative therapy of the future.
And what is wrong with that? Quite a lot, I think!
For one, quacks will jump on this fast-moving band-waggon filled with snake oil and try to divert as much cash as they can from their victims’ into their own bank accounts. Perhaps that would not be the worst effect. The worst would be, if some people believe what some quacks will undoubtedly tell them, that cupping is effective (“they see a great athlete does it and see it really works”) for all sorts of conditions, including serious diseases (“Cupping has also been used by some as an alternative treatment for cancer.”) – THERE IS A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTE (and some might even die sucking)!