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I Use Cupping for My Chronic Pain. Please Don't Call It a 'Fad'

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“You are gluten-free too?” my friend said as she rolled her eyes and laughed. I get this response often when I tell people I am gluten-free. They can’t believe that food can affect me so much. People often mock me for my dietary restrictions, not understanding how important they are to my health. They often think it is a choice to eat the way that I do and call it a “fad diet.” Not knowing that if I eat any of the food I am not supposed to, I become incredibly ill and it begins a cascade of symptoms. Food is my medicine and if I take the wrong medicine I get worse. But some people have difficulty understanding this and other forms of “medicine.” They see any alternative form of medicine, anything outside of the standard Western medical protocol (visit your doctor, take prescribed medicine, feel better) as not “real” or substantiated. This has become even more evident in the coverage of the Olympics and cupping.

Ever since Michael Phelps stepped out with circular bruises on his shoulders, there have been many headlines about athletes using cupping at the Olympics. Some called it a “fad,” others called it “quackery” and “pseudoscience,” claiming it is not supported by scientific evidence, and any associated benefits are most likely placebo effect. When I saw Michael Phelps step out onto the swimmer’s platform with those circular bruises, I didn’t think twice about it; it is very commonplace to me. I immediately knew that Phelps and other athletes were using cupping for similar reasons that I do: to release tension in tight muscles. As I write, my back is covered in circular bruises from cupping. I have injury along the length of my back and go to acupuncture weekly. I often receive cupping therapy for my back pain. For me, cupping releases muscle tension and increases blood circulation to the area. The darker the bruising, the more likely that there is lack of blood flow in the area causing blood stagnation. This is what my traditional Chinese medicine doctor explained to me after the cups left many deep, dark purple marks. As someone with chronic pain, I have had many cupping sessions along with acupuncture that have helped relieve some of my discomfort.

Cupping is a traditional form of Chinese medicine that dates back thousands of years and has been used by multiple ancient cultures including the Egyptians. Many of my Asian friends have told me they grew up with cupping, helping their parents put glass jars on their backs with lit matches to create suction. I have my own plastic cupping set at home that I use on my back which I bought after my physical therapist suggested it. I don’t think the fact that physical therapists use this technique should make cupping any more reliable, given that it has so much history, but sadly it has to be said to strengthen the argument.

It infuriates and disheartens me when people who have no idea what cupping is begin to call it a “new fad.” Cupping is neither new nor is it a fad. To say that is not only offensive to people who benefit from it regularly, but it also negates an entire culture’s history, beliefs, medical traditions and values. It’s frustrating to hear people talk about “alternative” medicine ignorantly. But as someone with chronic illness, this is no surprise. People often speak to me about my medical treatment, offer medical advice and make suggestions about things they know little about.

When you are sick, medicine gets a very different meaning. It’s not always just the prescribed medication you take, but the supplements, vitamins, herbal remedies, acupuncture, yoga, deep breathing, rest, stress management, physical therapy, daily routine, exercise, food: that all becomes your medicine, because without them you may feel worse. These things can allow you to live with some form of relief no matter how small. In fact, my doctor always stresses the importance of these things. These things don’t cure you and they don’t take away the illness, but they can help you get through the day, reduce severity of symptoms, and decrease flare-ups.

When I was diagnosed with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and had to completely change my diet so as not to feed the bacteria, I had to learn about my illness. I read articles, bought books suggested by my doctor and joined online groups with others dealing with the same illness. I educated myself because when you are ill, you learn about your illness, and about different forms of treatments. You try different things because you are sick and want relief. Some treatments work, others don’t; some prescriptions help you feel better, others make you feel worse. It is often trial and error, but in the end we are the only ones who know our bodies and what we need.

The problem is it always falls on us — those dealing with chronic pain and illness — to defend ourselves and educate others on medical treatment. Even if you are highly knowledgeable and explain yourself well, people still may not believe you. They judge you and mock you and you are made to feel foolish. They call it a “fad” or regard it as pseudoscience, not knowing the history, wide use or evidence behind it. Medicine has different meanings for different people and different cultures. People shouldn’t mock or belittle what they don’t understand or what is outside their norm. I believe medicine is medicine if it helps you feel better and helps you heal, regardless if it is prescribed or an alternative practice.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Originally published: August 12, 2016
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