Cupping Therapy - Usefull or Snake Oil?

A highly anticipated lightweight title bout between Irish superstar Conor McGregor and the Russian undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has taken place on October 7th, 2018 in Las Vegas. It became the biggest mma fight ever. PPV numbers have surpassed 2.4 million buys. The fighters are in part paid accordingly with the PPV numbers, so it’s important for the fighters to promote the event well during the lead-up. Nowadays, for fighters, the most common way to actively promote a fight, is becoming (more) active on social media. This is exactly what McGregor did. The picture on the left was posted on his Instagram on the 28th of August, with the caption “suck my blood”. The red circles on his back and the caption revealed that McGregor recently underwent cupping therapy.

Many athletes frequently undergo this kind of therapy. Other examples of athletes are Khabib Nurmagomedov himself, ex UFC champion Tony Ferguson and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. So what exactly is cupping therapy and what are its potential benefits for martial artists? Let’s have a look.

Cupping Therapy

Cupping therapy is not a recent development in medical sciences, but rather an ancient form of alternative medicine, which is re-emerging as a health trend. During a cupping session, special heated cups are placed on the patient’s skin for a few minutes. As the heat in the cups begins to cool, suction against the skin is created. To have a more graphic idea of how exactly cupping is performed, I recommend watching this informational video.

A whole range of benefits are attributed to cupping therapy: promoting relaxation, curing fevers, stopping migraines, promoting clear and healthy skin, detoxification, etc.

Now let’s zoom in on some of the claimed benefits which would be the most beneficial for fighters and athletes in general.

Three of the most claimed benefits are pain relief, reduced inflammation and faster muscle recovery. When an athlete is pain-free and recovers faster, he/she can train more and harder. This obviously induces better performances. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that athletes undergo this therapy.

The theory of the mechanism behind these health benefits goes as follows: The suction on the skin increases blood flow to the targeted muscles. This increased amount of blood promotes muscle recovery and pain relief. But are the acclaimed benefits and this mechanism scientifically supported?

There has been done quite some research on cupping therapy. However, the research doesn’t give us a

clear image of its efficacy. Many of the studies were done on a very small group of people. Because of the numerous small studies, I have consulted systematic reviews, that in themselves analyze the research and draw conclusions.

Pain relief

There seems to be some significant evidence for cupping therapy as a treatment for pain, says Edzard Ernst in his review: Is Cupping an effective treatment? An overview of systematic reviews. We should, however, take into account that there is a possibility that this is the result of highly biased research. Mr. Ernst points out that most of the positive studies and reviews on cupping come from China. He adds that 100% of the studies done in China on acupuncture were positive. While in the rest of the world the studies on acupuncture yielded only in part of the cases positive results.

Reduced inflammation & faster muscle recovery

No research yet has significantly proven that cupping therapy reduces inflammation or that the therapy

aids in a faster recovery of muscles after hard training. Nevertheless, many websites list these as benefits of cupping therapy. Often these websites even acknowledge the fact of a lack of scientific evidence. This website justifies the claims as follows:

“Although few clinical studies have been conducted to validate cupping as an effective treatment for muscle recovery, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Athletes swear by cupping as a drug-free and non-invasive way to treat muscle pain and fatigue and speed up healing time.”

As any rational person would argue, there is no proof in the pudding. It are a few cases. And the proof certainly isn’t in the pudding when we are talking about competitive athletes. The reason being that competitive athletes will always look for an edge over other competitors. Merely the belief of having an edge could lead to a placebo effect. Which of course in itself is, in fact, a real effect and so also a benefit.

Bottom Line

There is no hard evidence for the claimed benefits of cupping therapy for fighters. On the other hand, there are also no negative side effects to the therapy. So if 30 to 80 dollars (the average price) is peanuts for you, you can give it a try. But don’t expect any miracles.

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