A pilot study analyzing the effects of Chinese cupping as an adjunct treatment for patients with subacute low back pain on relieving pain, improving range of motion, and improving function

J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Feb;20(2):113-7. doi: 10.1089/acm.2012.0769. Epub 2013 Dec 3.


Background: Cupping, a classic Chinese medicine treatment, is a technique that applies suction cups over soft tissue. Cupping is gaining popularity in physical medicine because of the simplicity in application, minimal adverse effects, and reduction in pain and muscle tenderness. These factors also make it a cost-effective intervention. For this study, cupping was used to treat low back pain (LBP).

Objective: To evaluate the effectiveness of Chinese cupping in acutely reducing pain, decreasing tenderness to palpation, and improving range of motion for patients with subacute or chronic LBP.

Patients/setting: Twenty-one patients who reported back pain for at least 8 weeks volunteered at a multidisciplinary holistic outpatient clinic.

Intervention: After completion of a medical screening questionnaire and collection of baseline data, 4 glass cups were applied and pressurized over the lower erector spinae muscles.

Outcome measurements: Baseline data included demographic characteristics and the Oswestry Disability Questionnaire score. Pre- and postintervention data included perceived pain on a visual analog scale (VAS), lumbar spine range of motion, straight-leg raise test (SLR), and pain-pressure threshold (PPT) assessed with a digital force gauge. The data were analyzed by using a Wilcoxon signed-rank test and Spearman rho correlations.

Results: Of the 17 patients who completed the study, there were significant post-treatment improvements in VAS scores (p=0.0001), SLR motion on the left (p=0.043), and lumbar flexion range of motion (p=0.016) and improvements in PPT at all 4 investigated points (p<0.007). Significant relationships were identified between the improvement in low back flexion with the improvement in PPT at bilateral lumbar paraspinal muscles at the L4 levels and at the left L2 level.

Conclusions: Chinese cupping may be a low-risk, therapeutic treatment for the prompt reduction of symptoms associated with subacute and chronic low back pain. Cupping may allow patients to progress to functional movement training in a timely manner by promptly reducing pain and muscle tenderness and improving range of motion.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Chronic Pain / rehabilitation
  • Chronic Pain / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / rehabilitation
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Male
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional / instrumentation
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional / methods*
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pilot Projects
  • Range of Motion, Articular / physiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires