The Rock is an Instagram influencer — whether he likes it or not. So when actor and former professional wrestling superstar Dwayne Johnson recently used the platform to speak about his experience with the alternative medical practice called “cupping,” it was a big deal.
A bigger deal than the red, swollen, circular marks wrestling fans have seen on the bodies of Kenny Omega, Will Ospreay, Darby Allin, and many more over the last several years. Still, those indicators (plus the widespread and even more obvious use of kinesiology tape) show something else very clearly. The hell wrestlers put their bodies through for years on end will naturally lead them to try anything that promises pain relief, especially if it’s non-narcotic, given the troubles so many of their peers have experienced with prescription medication.
“Low back pain, muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue, and headaches are all common targets [for cupping therapy],” writes Steven Novella, neurologist and editor of the Science-Based Medicine website. “This is a clear sign that the claims made for these treatments are being driven by market forces, not plausibility, evidence, research, or science.”
At its core, cupping (or, as surgical oncologist David Gorski calls it, “making hickeys without the fun part”), is a form of the old medieval practice of bloodletting, begun hundreds or even thousands of years ago in the near and far east. “Wet cupping” would apply a flame to the end of a glass cup, with the opening placed on the subject’s skin. The heat would create a vacuum in the cup, drawing blood to the surface that would then be cut, to release the “stagnant blood” or, more commonly thought, to balance the patient’s mystical chi force.
Today’s “dry cupping” stops short of opening people up, and instead of balancing chi, practitioners claim it “increases blood flow,” removes anonymous toxins, or “activates” the immune system. It’s hard to pin down exactly what any of that actually means, but plenty of studies have been done to see if cupping has any measurable effects. Almost all them say “no,” and the ones that do show minor pain relief were often poorly controlled.
Okay, so what? If cupping does, maybe, allow for a little bit of pain relief (even if it’s just a placebo), isn’t that good? Sadly, cupping doesn’t come without risks or consequences. The bruises are bad enough, but continual trauma to the same patches of skin can cause serious wounds, indistinguishable from burns. Gorski says the middle two in this image, at least, are comparable to third degree burns.
But really, the bigger issue is the over 5 million people who liked The Rock’s Instagram photo, and everyone who’s been exposed to cupping by Olympic gold medalist and record-smashing swimmer Michael Phelps, and other elite athletes. Cupping might not itself be all that dangerous (if you don’t have a blood-clotting disorder), but like so many “alternative” therapies, its relatively low cost and lack of invasiveness can cause ordinary people to use it over traditional medical methods with confirmed results, eating up their limited resources and potentially allowing their conditions to get worse.
Johnson and Phelps have access to the best trainers and nutritionists in the world, which are much more likely to contribute to a large part of their success than something like cupping is. They’ve earned that, of course, but the rest of us have to piece things together ourselves, and like eating our Wheaties, it’s not so strange that we’d like to do the things our sports heroes do. Which isn’t to say those titans shouldn’t try whatever they want for themselves, but maybe they should be a little more careful about what they promote to others, intentionally or otherwise.
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