Background: Cupping therapy is a traditional therapy that has been employed worldwide for thousands of years. Despite a lack of quality clinical studies evaluating the efficacy of cupping therapy, its long history and widespread use throughout the world suggests the commonly claimed health benefits should not be completely discounted as without merit.
Purpose: The goal of this paper is to present the research detailing what is known concerning the effects of suction on skin and underlying tissue, and the reaction of the body to that stimulus. Understanding the literature on the physiological effects of this mechanical force may help elaborate an explanation for the advertised local and systemic effects of cupping therapy.
Findings: Negative pressure causes stretching of the skin and underlying tissue and dilation of the capillaries. This stimulates an increase in tissue blood flow, eventually leading to capillary rupture and ecchymosis. Macrophages phagocytize the erythrocytes in the extravascular space which stimulates the production of Heme Oxygenase-1 (HO-1) to metabolize the heme. Heme catalysis results in the production of carbon monoxide (CO), biliverdin(BV)/bilirubin(BR) and iron. HO-1, BV, BR, and CO has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiproliferative, and neuromodulatory effects in animal and human systems. These substances also stimulate a shift of macrophages to the anti-inflammatory M2 phenotype. There is evidence that the effects are both local and systemic.
Conclusion: Besides the mechanical effect of cupping increasing the local blood flow and stretching underlying tissue, activation of the HO-1 system could account for many of cupping therapy's claimed local and systemic health benefits.
Keywords: Bilirubin; Carbon monoxide; Cupping therapy; Ecchymosis; Heme oxygenase-1; Negative pressure.
Published by Elsevier Ltd.