There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may be good for certain health conditions. However, more studies are necessary to understand how cupping therapy works, if it works, and situations where it may help.

Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern practice used to treat a variety of conditions.

It involves placing cups at certain points on a person’s skin. A practitioner creates suction in the cups, which pulls against the skin.

Cupping can either be dry or wet. Wet cupping involves puncturing the skin before starting the suction, which removes some of the person’s blood during the procedure. This type of cupping is less common in the United States, where practitioners must be licensed medical professionals.

Cupping typically leaves round bruises on a person’s skin, where blood vessels burst after exposure to the procedure’s suction effects.

A 2018 review offered a summary of the uses of cupping. The review was limited to uses documented in research studies.

According to this paper, the different types of stimulation cupping can provide may be why it helps a wide range of conditions.

However, the review also notes there is not enough strong evidence to back up this effectiveness.

Benefits of cupping that the review authors cite may include:

  • pain reduction
  • muscle relaxation
  • improved blood circulation
  • activation of the immune system
  • release of toxins
  • removal of wastes and heavy metals

Scientists have linked cupping therapy with various health benefits. According to a 2017 analysis, the suction involved in cupping stimulates local blood flow. This action also stimulates the body’s heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) system, which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neurotransmitter regulation effects.

Cupping also has links to acupuncture points on a person’s body, which are central to the practice of acupuncture.

Many doctors consider cupping therapy a complementary therapy, which means that many do not recognize it as part of Western medicine. However, this does not mean it is not effective. Therapists sometimes use complementary treatments with supporting research in addition to Western medicine.

However, as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) also notes, there is not yet enough high-quality research to prove cupping’s effectiveness. Scientists have to do more research to determine whether it works as a treatment.

According to the 2018 review, therapists may use cupping for the following conditions:

  • shingles pain
  • facial paralysis
  • spinal disk wear and tear (cervical spondylosis)
  • high blood pressure
  • cardiovascular disease prevention
  • musculoskeletal pain
  • lower back pain
  • neck pain
  • fibromyalgia
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • headache
  • migraine
  • cellulitis
  • cough
  • cold
  • asthma
  • acne
  • urticaria
  • soft tissue injury
  • arthritis
  • neurodermatitis

Therapists may also use cupping as a cosmetic technique to improve the appearance of facial skin.

To achieve the benefits of cupping, practitioners apply the cups to different parts of the body. This may or may not be at the site of pain. According to a 2015 paper, application sites can include:

  • back
  • neck
  • between the shoulders
  • behind the ear
  • middle and crown of the head
  • chin
  • thighs
  • knee joints
  • ankle joints
  • breast
  • hips
  • buttocks
  • wrist joints

The research notes that the most common application sites are the back, chest, abdomen, buttocks, and areas of the body with significant muscle.

People frequently cite cupping therapy as a method of pain relief. However, while there is some evidence for its effectiveness, scientists need to conduct more high-quality studies to demonstrate this fully.

A meta-analysis that appears in a 2018 review claims there may be evidence for cupping being effective in treating back pain. However, again, the researchers note that most studies were of low quality and that there is a need for more standardization in future studies.

One 2018 study came to a similar conclusion for the effectiveness of cupping for neck pain. The researchers note that there is a need for better-quality studies to determine whether cupping therapy is effective.

The 2018 review cited research evidence for cupping therapy to be effective at treating acne as well as herpes zoster (shingles) and its associated pain.

However, more rigorous, high-quality studies are necessary to verify the findings.

Another 2017 review notes that professional athletes are increasingly using cupping therapy as part of their recovery practices.

However, this review found no consistent evidence to show that cupping was effective for anything related to sports recovery. The researchers gave no recommendation for or against the practice, saying further research was necessary.

According to the NCCIH, the side effects of cupping can include:

  • lasting skin discoloration
  • scarring
  • burns
  • infection

If a person has a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, cupping may make it worse on the area where the practitioner applies the cups.

According to a 2018 overview on cupping, the therapy can also cause:

Due to the poor quality of studies investigating cupping, it is difficult to know how common these side effects are.

If a person has any of these side effects following cupping therapy, they should speak with a medical professional. Some people may have health conditions, such as problems with blood clotting, that make cupping unsuitable.

Wet cupping risks

In cases where a person undergoes wet cupping, which is more common outside the U.S., a person could experience internal bleeding or anemia if the practitioner takes too much blood or if a person has frequent wet cupping sessions.

Wet cupping also risks serious infections if practitioners fail to sterilize equipment between sessions.

There are many commercially available kits to help a person practice cupping at home. However, not everything on the market is necessarily safe or recommended for every person. Before a person begins cupping at home, they may want to talk with their doctor.

It is also possible to take courses on home cupping from licensed providers, such as acupuncturists. Before signing up, a person might want to review the instructor’s credentials or get referrals from healthcare professionals, friends, or family.

The NCCIH has tips for selecting a complementary health practitioner. They include researching the practitioner’s training and certifications and asking if they work with conventional healthcare professionals.

Is it safe?

Aside from the side effects and risks, cupping is generally safe. The NCCIH notes there have been reports of severe side effects, such as bleeding inside the skull after scalp cupping and anemia from repeated wet cupping, but these are rare. In the U.S., only licensed medical professionals can perform wet cupping, and the procedure is not very common.

However, wet cupping does increase the risk of infections and bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis B and C if the practitioner does not sterilize the cups between sessions. Before undergoing a wet cupping session, a person should ask about safety and sterilization practices.

Is it painful?

Side effects of dry cupping might include physical discomforts such as headaches and nausea. According to the 2018 overview, people may also experience pain at the application site.

Wet cupping involves shallow cuts in the skin, followed by suction to draw blood. This, like the suction in dry cupping, may cause soreness in the area. However, as stated, this type of cupping is not common in the U.S.

How long does it take to work?

The time it takes to experience the benefits of cupping therapy is unknown and may depend on the specific condition. For example, the 2018 review suggested a possible protocol for lower back pain of five sessions of dry cupping with a break of 3–7 days between sessions.

It may therefore take multiple cupping sessions to find relief. Also, since the technique causes skin discoloration, it may be a few days before the skin looks as it did before the therapy.

There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may help a person with certain health issues. However, there are not enough high-quality studies to support this.

To understand whether cupping therapy is effective, how it works, and the conditions it is best for, scientists need to conduct and publish more high-quality research.

If a person finds that cupping therapy relieves their pain or helps their health in another way, and if they do not experience any adverse side effects, cupping may be a good choice. However, some therapies have better evidence for their effectiveness. Doctors may advise that people consider these first.

A person may choose to use cupping therapy alongside conventional therapies. If they decide to do so, it is important they let their conventional healthcare team know.