Questions about that cup of qi (cupping)

Cupping has been addressed here in the past. It is a method of treatment used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that involves heating the air inside a cup and placing the cup on the body creating a vacuum as it cools and pulls the skin. It is supposed to unblock your chi (qi). Yeah…– The Skeptic’s Dictionary –

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on new studies that further explore the supposed benefits of this technique.

Centuries-Old Art of Cupping May Bring Some Pain Relief.

Dr. Lauche co-authored a 50-person study published last year that found a single wet-cupping treatment on average significantly reduced chronic neck pain three days after the treatment, compared with a control group that had no treatment. Location of the cups varied with each patient but typically was on the trapezius muscle, which spans the neck, shoulders and upper back. In unpublished results, she adds, scientists found the pain relief lasted for months.

In a 40-person German study published in October, cupping therapy significantly relieved knee arthritis pain compared with patients who received no treatment. But the study’s lack of a control group treated with a sham technique “raises questions of whether it is cupping that is really working or if it has a placebo effect,” says David Felson, who directs an arthritis research program at Boston University School of Medicine.

Felson’s point in that last sentence is right on target. None of the three studies mentioned in the WSJ article have been conducted with a proper control using a cupping-like device. According to a recent blog post by Dr. Lauche, “Latest Research on Cupping“, such a device has been developed (Lee 2010). Simply using a sham cupping device alone in a control group may not be sufficient as there could be other biases present in the application of the sham cup versus the traditional cup.

Here are some additional published references.

Lauche, R et al. The influence of a series of five dry cupping treatments on pain and mechanical thresholds in patients with chronic non-specific neck pain – a randomised controlled pilot study. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2011, 11:63 doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-63

Kim, T-H et al. J Occup Health 2012; 54: 416–426  Cupping for Treating Neck Pain in Video Display Terminal (VDT) Users: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial (pdf file)

Teut, M et al. Pulsatile dry cupping in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee – a randomized controlled exploratory trial. MC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012, 12:184 doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-184

Lee MS, Kim JI, Kong JC, Lee DH, Shin BC. Developing and validating a sham cupping device Acupunct Med. 2010;28:200-204