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Of Bears, Ducks, and Quacks: What is cupping therapy?

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Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Thus, when one athlete finds success while doing something weird, it’s not too surprising to find other athletes jumping on board (note—no amount of Skittles is likely to turn Jeremy Langford into that other guy). Unfortunately, this means that athletes can quickly fall prey to pseudoscience and alternative medicine trends that are poorly documented, distracting, and even dangerous.

Recently, Bears All-Pro, Pro-Bowler, and default face-of-the-franchise player Kyle Long posted some images of his rehab. The great news was that the Bear has increased his weight and is happy with his progress. The bad news seems to be that the former Oregon Duck has found his way into some genuine quackery: cupping.

Cupping has been around in multiple cultures in one form or another for a really long time, but it was brought into the mainstream during the 2016 Olympic Games.

As USA Today reported back in August of 2016, “There's little to no medical evidence that cupping has any benefit.” The best that can be said is that a few journals known to endorse alternative medicine on a general basis have found that some of the studies show possible success.

Get that? Once bias is reduced or eliminated (in other words, once researchers control for the fact that most of those who practice a therapy want it to work, and most of those who receive a therapy also want it to work), like most alternative therapies cupping ends up with nothing more than an anecdote here or a feel-good story there.

Science-Based Medicine, reporting on the phenomenon, described it as followed:

The bottom line of all of this is that research into cupping is mostly negative or of poor quality and with high bias. There is no good compelling evidence for any real physiological effect from cupping.

Okay, so where’s the harm? Besides the fact that any effort or energy spent on an ineffective treatment can end up distracting from real care, there is also the real risk of side effects. In extreme cases, treating the skin via cupping can lead to some really unfortunate outcomes (warning—if you click on the link please brace yourself before you scroll down to the second picture, as it’s not pretty).

Are those really terrible outcomes likely? No. However, what is also unlikely is that cupping is going to have a benefit. I should clarify that there are really two forms of cupping.

One is “wet cupping,” which involves making incisions as part of the process (in other words, it’s another form of blood-letting). The really bad side effects tend to be associated with wet cupping, simply because more can go wrong when people (especially people without a lot of training) start cutting holes in people.

The other form is less invasive, and essentially takes the place of a massage or other manipulation designed to relieve pain or relax muscles. This is less likely to have negative side effects, but it is still poorly supported by evidence. The WebMD article linked in that last sentence makes the point that while cupping is relatively safe, there isn’t quality research to back up its effects.

Kyle Long, Oregon Duck and Chicago Bear, deserves better than cupping. I sincerely hope the Bears’ training staff is giving it to him.