Cupping is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has existed in several ancient cultures. It recently became popular when US Olympic athletes displayed cupping marks on their bodies, and it was claimed that cupping is used for enhancing their physical performance. There are two distinct forms: dry and wet cupping.
Wet cupping involves scarring the skin with a sharp instrument and then applying a cup with a vacuum to suck blood from the wound. It can thus be seen (and was traditionally used) as a form of blood-letting. Wet cupping is being recommended by enthusiasts for a wide range of conditions. But does it work?
This study compared the effects of wet-cupping therapy with conventional therapy on persistent nonspecific low back pain (PNSLBP). In this randomized clinical trial, 180 participants with the mean age of 45±10 years old, who had been suffering from PNSLBP were randomly assigned to wet-cupping or conventional treatment. The wet-cupping group was treated with two separate sessions (4 weeks in total) on the inter-scapular and sacrum area. In the conventional treatment group, patients were conservatively treated using rest (6 weeks) and oral medications (3 weeks). The primary and the secondary outcome were the quantity of disability using Oswestry Disability Index (ODI), and pain intensity using Visual Analogue Scale (VAS), respectively.
The results show that there was no significant difference in demographic characteristics (age, gender, and body mass index) between the two groups. Therapeutic effect of wet-cupping therapy was comparable to conventional treatment in the 1st month follow-up visits. The functional outcomes of wet-cupping at the 3rd and 6th month visits were significantly superior compared to the conventional treatment group. The final ODI scores in the wet-cupping and conventional groups were 16.7 ± 5.7 and 22.3 ± 4.5, respectively (P<0.01).
The authors concluded that wet-cupping may be a proper method to decrease PNSLBP without any conventional treatment. The therapeutic effects of wet-cupping can be longer lasting than conventional therapy.
Perhaps the authors were joking? In any case, their conclusions cannot be taken seriously. Why? There are several reasons, but the most obvious ones are:
- There was no adequate control of the presumably substantial placebo effects of wet cupping.
- The control group received a treatment that is known to be ineffective or even detrimental.
For people with acute low back pain, advice to rest in bed is less effective than advice to stay active. Thus comparing wet cupping to a control group treated with bed rest is bound to generate a false-positive outcome for wet cupping.
My final point is perhaps the most important: wet cupping can lead to serious complication, and I therefore do not recommend it to anyone – other than masochists, perhaps.