Cupping as an Alternative Therapy for Chronic Back Pain

If you watched the Rio Olympics this summer, you probably noticed large circular marks on athletes’, such as Michael Phelps’ and Alex Naddour’s bodies due to cupping, an alternative therapy that helps reduce joint and muscle pain. Typically used by athletes to speed up recovery time and enhance performance, cupping can also assist in treating chronic back pain as part of a larger pain management plan.

Cupping therapy applies local pressure to areas of swelling and pain in order to release muscle tension, stress and, ultimately, pain. The ancient practice involves applying heated glass jars to enhance circulation and pull the skin, tissue and muscles upwards, commonly on the shoulders, neck and/or low back.

There are different methods of cupping for chronic back pain, including wet and dry. During both practices, a cupping therapist applies a flammable substance, such as alcohol, herbs, or paper in a cup and sets it on fire. As the fire goes out, the therapist places the cup upside down and upon the skin, anchoring the cups to the low back. When the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum that causes the skin to rise and redden as the blood vessels expand. When blood flow increases within the vessels and capillaries, the tissues receive nutrients and oxygen, relaxing tense muscles and stiffness.

Wet cupping creates a mild suction by leaving the cup on the low back for approximately three minutes. The therapist then removes the cup and uses a small scalpel to make light, tiny cuts on the skin. Next, s/he creates a second suction to draw out a small quantity of blood to remove harmful substances and toxins from the body, and reduce pain in the area.

Until recently, few rigorous scientific trials have tested the effects of cupping on chronic pain. In 2011, a study published in Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine that reviewed dozens of randomized clinical trials found that cupping significantly reduced pain in people with low back issues. This year, a study that set out to investigate the effectiveness of cupping therapy for relieving chronic neck and shoulder pain found that pain intensity scores were reduced out of 10 from 9.7 to 3.6 on average.

While published research has demonstrated cupping’s efficacy in treating chronic pain, further scientific studies are required to improve the understanding and potential long-term effects of the therapy.

Do you practice cupping therapy to help ease your chronic pain? Tell us about your experiences on our Facebook page.

About Dr. McCance

For the past two decades, Dr. Sean McCance, a board certified NYC spine surgeon, has directed one of the leading spine practices in New York, Spine Associates, including lumbar (back) & cervical (neck) injury diagnosis and surgery. Since establishing his best in class practice on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, Dr. McCance has performed over 4,000 spine surgeries, and has been recognized by his peers as one of the most accomplished spine surgeons in the field. Dr. McCance’s philosophy of direct management of each case by an expert spine surgeon, and highly personalized and comprehensive approach has made Spine Associates one of the most trusted and respected spine surgery practices in the world.

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