Objective: Despite the recent re-emergence of the process of cupping by athletes, supporting evidence for its efficacy and safety remains scarce. This systematic review aims to summarize the evidence of clinical trials on cupping for athletes.
Methods: SCOPUS, Cochrane Library, PubMed, AMED, and CNKI databases were searched from their inception to December 10, 2016. Randomized controlled trials on cupping therapy with no restriction regarding the technique, or cointerventions, were included, if they measured the effects of cupping compared with any other intervention on health and performance outcomes in professionals, semi-professionals, and leisure athletes. Data extraction and risk of bias assessment using the Cochrane Risk of Bias Tool were conducted independently by two pairs of reviewers.
Results: Eleven trials with n = 498 participants from China, the United States, Greece, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates were included, reporting effects on different populations, including soccer, football, and handball players, swimmers, gymnasts, and track and field athletes of both amateur and professional nature. Cupping was applied between 1 and 20 times, in daily or weekly intervals, alone or in combination with, for example, acupuncture. Outcomes varied greatly from symptom intensity, recovery measures, functional measures, serum markers, and experimental outcomes. Cupping was reported as beneficial for perceptions of pain and disability, increased range of motion, and reductions in creatine kinase when compared to mostly untreated control groups. The majority of trials had an unclear or high risk of bias. None of the studies reported safety.
Conclusions: No explicit recommendation for or against the use of cupping for athletes can be made. More studies are necessary for conclusive judgment on the efficacy and safety of cupping in athletes.
Keywords: complementary medicine; efficacy; pain; safety; traditional medicine.