Cupping at the Olympics

Chinese medicine is in the news again with cupping of Michael Phelps and other Olympic athletes.  Judging from the online images, cupping is being performed by trainers with cups using a detachable pump.  The telltale marks suggest that the cupping is being done in the anatomical areas that are generally sore or stressed, unfortunately without specific regard to the course of acupuncture channels. 

While this is great publicity for us, this sort of use of Chinese medical treatments by individuals who are not trained in Chinese medicine, in concert with the musings of journalists, can mislead the public about our medicine.  In the NY Times article, the author offers several comments about the intended effects of cupping—not exactly congruent with the thinking in professional Chinese medicine—and offers up a few studies to explore the issue of whether or not cupping therapy is a placebo treatment. 

This example is typical of how Chinese medicine is handled in the popular press.  It is understandable that journalists want to appeal to a broad audience, both the believers and the skeptics.  As a practitioner, it is, of course, frustrating to be reminded how biased the media is in regards to Chinese medicine.  Even indisputable evidence of the direct effects of acupuncture, with functional MRI demonstrating how acupuncture can modulate brain activity as one example, does not seem to be adequate to earn us the benefit of the doubt.  To be fair, there is some media coverage about the shortcomings of Western medicine, but even the biggest cautionary stories seem to be a flash in the pan.  A recent story, for example, described adverse events in hospitals as a leading cause of mortality in the United States.  No matter how alarming the news, once the clamor dies down, it is back to the business of showcasing the latest achievements in medicine and marveling at the bright future of cures, while Chinese medicine is presented with many caveats.

Coverage of Olympic cupping and the quality of the treatment aside, it is still good to have a Chinese medical treatment in the news.  As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the tempest in a teapot of Olympic cupping has at least piqued some interest.  People are talking about the use of cupping, and our patients have been asking questions and wanting to know more.  If more Americans realize that there are options available to them, our healthcare system can move forward to a more effective future.

We use cupping frequently here at White Pine.  Cupping is one of those modalities that seem to occur more frequently in clinics run by Chinese practitioners, but we pride ourselves on offering our patients the kind of care you would find in a good clinic in China.  For our patients, we primarily like to use cupping for back and hip pain and for treating stiffness of the neck and shoulders.  We favor the traditional technique of fire cup, where several balls of alcohol-soaked cotton are ignited and used to create a vacuum inside of a glass cup.  This method requires training and experience, so please do not try this at home!

In the coverage of the Olympic cupping, hematomas or bruises are attributed to the breaking of tiny capillaries.  While this may be true structurally, the Chinese understand that bruising is in direct proportion to the amount of blood stasis presenting in the area treated.  In other words, the more chronic, fixed, and severe the pain (all characteristic of blood stasis patterns), the darker the bruise after cupping.  Most of the time, bruising starts out heavy and grows lighter as the condition improves and the pain diminishes.  Of course, with traditional fire cupping, there is a limit to the amount of suction that can be achieved.  Having a ceiling on the force of the suction has an important benefit:  it is unlikely to cause damage to tissues.  The type of cupping featured in the story on the Olympic athletes, however, may involve a powerful suction that could even potentially even dislocate bones, such as spinal vertebra.  Traditional fire cupping is not only more entertaining to watch than pump cupping, it is also safer for the patient. For some of our patients, cupping is their favorite form of Chinese medical care.