Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Hand FAQ

Question:

I went to see a nontraditional "healer" and had a treatment called cupping done. Even though the problem was in my hands (carpal tunnel syndrome), the suction cups applied to my upper neck and back really worked. I've had other treatments I hoped would work and didn't. So there must be more to it than just the fact that I wanted/expected relief from my pain. How does this work?

Answer:

Cupping is a healing method used in folk medicine in countries such as China, India, Arabia, Central Europe, and parts of Africa. Glasses applied to the skin create suction of the underlying skin and soft tissue. The stimulation helps improve circulation to the area. The technique can be done dry or wet. Dry cupping is just as described here. Wet cupping adds an additional step of making tiny cuts in the skin that bleed. When the cups are partially filled with blood, they are removed (usually after five to 10 minutes). How does cupping work? The actual physiologic mechanism remains unknown. There are several theories out there but no proven facts to explain it. The first theory is called the double-crush hypothesis. The idea behind this theory is that carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when there has been nerve injury (irritation, compression) in the neck. Carpal tunnel symptoms are then the result of damage to flow of messages along the entire length of the nerve. The cupping applies vacuum pressure to the soft tissues and stimulates blood and lymph flow to the area. This, in turn, improves overall nerve function, even at the median nerve further down the arm. A second theory is that wet cupping applies a noxious stimulus or counterirritation. The nervous system stops paying attention to the chronic pain of carpal tunnel syndrome and switches instead to this new, local source of nerve signals. The result is to override the chronic nerve pain long enough to turn it off permanently. And finally, it has been suggested that cupping works simply because the person received some form of treatment and expected it to work. That's called the placebo effect. There is a certain amount of placebo effect with any treatment. Why some placebos are more powerful than others remains another unknown factor. Andreas Michalsen, et al. Effects of Traditional Cupping Therapy in Patients with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Randomized Controlled Trial. In The Journal of Pain. June 2009. Vol. 10. No. 6. Pp. 601-608.

*Disclaimer:* The information contained herein is compiled from a variety of sources. It may not be complete or timely. It does not cover all diseases, physical conditions, ailments or treatments. The information should NOT be used in place of visit with your healthcare provider, nor should you disregard the advice of your health care provider because of any information you read in this topic.
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