Ashley Graham Tries Cupping on Her Pregnant Belly—What Is It For?
We’re still learning about how cupping might provide relief. As with a lot of healing modalities that fall outside the bounds of Western medicine, there’s limited evidence on the mechanisms and effectiveness of cupping, but that’s not necessarily because it doesn’t work. There is some evidence that cupping may help reduce pain, the NCCIH says, although the research is mixed.
A 2020 meta-analysis of 18 studies and 1,172 participants published in the Journal of Pain in 2020 found cupping had “large short-term effects” for reducing pain intensity when compared to no treatment. (But researchers also found “sham cupping” that mimics a proper cupping session performed just as well, suggesting a placebo effect might be at play.) The researchers concluded that cupping may be a treatment option for chronic pain, but recommended further study given that the evidence is limited by issues like risk of bias and irregularities in clinical trials. A 2015 meta-review published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences had similar findings—that cupping “may be beneficial” for pain-related conditions like lower back pain, but the low quality of the studies prevented drawing clear conclusions. and emphasized the need for more large, well-designed controlled trials.
There are a number of different theories as to how cupping could relieve pain, only a couple of which we’ll touch on here. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) holds that cupping works by dissolving stagnations and blockages in one’s qi (or chi), the vital energy or life force that circulates throughout the body along channels called meridians, the Pacific College of Health and Science explains. Blocked qi is thought to be at the root of much pain and illness in TCM, and practices like acupuncture or cupping are thought to help restore the natural flow of qi, which is conducive to healing and correcting systemic imbalances.
This aligns with a similar theory from Western medical researchers: that cupping stimulates the body’s circulatory system. It’s thought that the suction force and superficial bruising trigger the body to send blood to the affected area and facilitate a natural healing process, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The authors of the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences review also claim that in addition to stimulating the flow of blood and qi, cupping may also stimulate the central nervous system to release pain-mediating neurotransmitters. Additionally, the well-documented placebo effect—meaning people feel better because they believe they are receiving an effective drug or a treatment—may play a role.
There’s even less information around cupping and pregnancy. While no major pregnancy or medical organizations recommend cupping for pregnancy issues, people who are pregnant might seek out cupping for similar reasons to anyone else—like pain or improved circulation. But there simply is not a lot of professional guidance for cupping on pregnant people. And, as is the case for so many treatments, the number of pregnant people represented in research is very small.
Given the lack of research and prudence of avoiding unnecessary risks during pregnancy, most sources (in TCM and Western medicine) advise against cupping during pregnancy (if they address it at all), especially on the abdomen. For instance, the Cleveland Clinic advises against cupping for pregnant people due to the lack of research, as does the National University of Health Sciences (which specializes in integrated medicine). The textbooks Cupping Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine Cupping Therapy instruct practitioners to avoid cupping on the abdomen throughout pregnancy. And the NCCIH recommends that if you are pregnant and interested in trying a TCM treatment, you should consult your health care provider first.
Cupping is generally low-risk, according to the Cleveland Clinic, but like any treatment, it has potential side effects. These include skin issues like persistent discoloration, scars, burns, and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema, according to the NCCIH. Wet cupping is inherently higher risk because it involves bleeding. Cupping equipment that is not sterilized between uses could spread infections, and repeated treatments could cause excessive blood loss, per the NCCIH.
If you’re interested in trying cupping, it’s a good idea to do your research, talk to your doctor first (especially if you’re pregnant), and find a reliable provider. When looking for a TCM practitioner, the NCCIH recommends seeking out someone who is licensed and accredited, and asking about their training and experience.
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