Dear Dr. Berger,
What is your medical opinion of cupping?
Yerachmiel Lopin, New York
Dear Mr. Lopin,
Though cupping is not a brand new cure, it got a new moment in the sun in 2016, when a picture of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps went viral - featuring his back covered in black and blew circles, telltale signs of the practice. Presumably he didn’t do this out of nostalgia for the old country and its traditional healers or for the East Side’s “bankes” parlors frequented by immigrant Jews. Phelps used cupping because of its “alternative” cachet.
How does this so-called cure work and why is it more popular now (if that is the case)?
Cupping has arisen in parallel a number of times in different cultures. The Chinese, Greeks, and Arabs acknowledge the practice, and Jews too, under the name “bankes.” Each culture, or people, has a different explanation why it might work, relevant to its own health beliefs. Chinese explanations of cupping center on “qi,” the bodily energy which flows through the organism along various lines. The Arabs of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, emphasized the balance between liquids (probably under influence of the ancient Greeks’ humors). My favorite, “Dr. Maimonides,” in his Jewish-Arabic treatise on hemorrhoids, suggested cupping as a cure, though second-line.
The ancestors of today’s Ashkenazic Jews, for example, didn’t use cupping on the basis of any theory. They just used it as a treatment, sitting in the hot baths, applying a sort of jar (the meaning of the Yiddish word “bankes” is “jar,” from the Russian). The cup, or jar, creates negative pressure which tugs at the skin. Various kinds of cupping are possible - “hot,” “cold,” “wet,” “dry.” even (so says Dr. Wikipedia) “flaming.” (Don’t ask.) People say that cupping can help pains, heal certain illnesses -- all sorts of claims.
More important than claimed mechanisms are the reasons that people are attracted to a treatment like this. I think that it has to do with the “alternativeness” of it. It’s an old-wives’ treatment in the positive sense, something supposedly natural, from the home, and easily available, like in Grandma’s kitchen, without the costs, unfriendliness, and cold scientism of today’s medicine.
That brings us to the final question. Is cupping any good? In short, the answer is - probably not. Several systematic reviews of the scientific literature on cupping have been carried out in recent years (in particular, in China, where there is an incentive to carry out such studies, often of dubious quality), which show that it might be useful in some cases, but perhaps not (the evidence is weak), and probably no differently than placebo.
But if you’re looking for an alternative therapy, a placebo sort of thing, which can calm you and bring comfort, despite the ineffectiveness according to the dry facts, and something which has been popular throughout the generations….well, so what if it isn’t any good? Never mind that. You get bruised, the wallet gets lighter, and at the end of it all it’s unlikely to harm you very much.