Cupping Help Or Hype?

We spoke to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) experts and Western medical doctors to find out if those large circular cups live up to the hype.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

We spoke to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) experts and Western medical doctors to find out if those large circular cups live up to the hype.

What do Michael Phelps, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow have in common? 

They’re all big fans of cupping, an ancient Chinese therapy that involves applying suction on certain parts of the body using glass or plastic cups. The vacuum effect causes small blood vessels to break, leaving circular bruise- like marks. TCM experts claim these are signs of toxins being pulled to the surface. 

What does it do? 

Dr Sim Beng Joo, Consultant Physician and Advisor (Science & Strategy) of PULSE TCM clinic, says cupping promotes deep tissue stimulation through the compression and suction of the tissues. Depending on your ailments, your TCM physician may use any one or a combination of cupping techniques to treat you. This includes glided cupping, where the cup is moved along specific muscle fibres; flash cupping, where the cup is repeatedly attached then removed; and wet cupping, where tiny incisions are made to the skin before the cup is placed on top.  

Dr Sim says that cupping therapy is just one part of a multi-therapy approach that practitioners use to treat various disease and conditions. “When done in this way, [cupping] is highly effective in addressing pain, sleep [issues], blood circulation and skin conditions.” 

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Western doctors weigh in

Sceptics of cupping credit its alleged benefits to the placebo effect, but the truth is, there aren’t many rigorous scientific studies on the topic so the jury’s still out.

In any case, Dr Tan Tee Yong, a consultant anaesthesiologist at Surgi-TEN Specialists in Farrer Park Hospital as well as an acupuncturist, urges patients not to exclusively rely on TCM when treating ailments. “It can be dangerous if someone who has a serious medical problem [refuses] appropriate medical treatment and only relies on cupping, as it can delay the appropriate management [of the illness]”.

Dr Tyler Lim, visiting doctor at Mount Alvernia Emergency department and medical director at the Iron Suites Medical Centre, has seen patients with chronic conditions such as muscular and skeletal disorders improve with cupping, but he’s also had patients who suffered burn wounds and persistent bleeding as a result of the treatment.

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Not just for old folks

You may associate TCM clinics with your grandparents, or think that the treatment only benefits the elderly, but Dr Sim says cupping can address issues faced by younger women, such as menstrual cramps and acne. “Cupping can also enhance your metabolism, aiding weight management,” she adds. 

Cupping is generally safe if properly administered and if it’s good enough for Michael Phelps, an Olympian with 23 gold medals, it might be worth a shot! 

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- Is the practitioner certified under the TCM registry in Singapore? To learn about how you can access the registry, visit tcm-practitioners. 

- Is the practitioner able to communicate confidently and effectively, the procedures and risks involved? 

- Has the practitioner been making the extra effort to keep the facility and equipment sterile?

Avoid cupping if… 

Cupping therapy has no side effects when properly administered by skilled professionals, but you should avoid cupping if you have:

- Very fragile skin, sunburn or open wounds 

- Acute infectious conditions 

- Genetically-weakened blood vessels 

- Suffered from underlying bleeding tendencies or are on blood-thinning medications 

- Suffered a cardiac arrest in the past six months

Consult a doctor before going for the treatment if you have diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or are pregnant. For safety reasons, cupping should never be done over large veins, eyes, or the upper and lower abdomen of pregnant women.

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