Monday, August 15, 2016

Covert Celebrity Endorsements at the Olympics

What’s the difference between medicine and superstition?  Medicine works most of the time for most people because it has been carefully tested in controlled studies comparing treatment results to no medicine (a sugar pill) or to no treatment at all.  It is also tested for safety and side effects.

Superstition sometimes works for some people for one or more of three reasons.  The ailment is often not diagnosed in the first place, so it may or may not exist at all.  The power of the mind is very strong and people can sometimes think themselves well, showing improvement even when given only a sugar pill (the placebo effect).  Many ailments go away over time with the “cure” attributed to whatever someone happens to be doing at the time – valid or not.

This month people watching the Olympics see Michael Phelps and others with marks on their bodies from cupping.  Those who are not critical thinkers will likely decide to spend their money (around $70 per session) for this traditional Chinese practice figuring if Michael Phelps does it, it must be good.  But last time I checked, Michael Phelps did not earn a medical degree between swimming laps.  What he does to prepare for swimming is equivalent to the motions a batter might go through before stepping up to the plate.  Neither is a prescription.

The cupping practitioner, places an array of suction cups (glass, rubber, silicone, earthenware or plastic) on the body for five to 20 minutes where they suck at your flesh with the help of a flame or pump.  In the practice called dry cupping (as seen on the Olympics) no blood is involved, but wet cupping is akin to the obsolete medical art of bleeding (where they sometimes used leeches) that cured or killed many in the Middle Ages.

When I saw a TV news spot on cupping they said that it draws the impurities in your blood to the surface.  This seemed a bit far-fetched.  How does it separate the impurities from the blood itself and how do you know there are impurities in your blood in the first place?  Likely, they assumed everyone has these impurities.  The reporter said the effects last for about three days.  What then, go back for another $70 session to draw out new impurities?  It smacks of a scam.

Other sources tell a different story. says this alternative therapy has gone mainstream as a treatment for “improving circulation, pain relief, giving you energy” after Phelps and Gwyneth Paltrow (another medical expert) backed it – no mention of impurities.  On we find it targets common complaints like “low back pain, muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue, and headaches.”  (Targeting these common, subjective complaints is an easier sale.)  According to one source claims that cupping helps acne, herpes zoster, pain management, facial paralysis and cervical spondylosis; and another claims that it treats blood disorders, fertility, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure – and the list goes on.  They then go on to warn of side effects.  (Yes, even traditional Chinese medicine can have side effects, like burning and bruising in this case.)

When some medicine claims to cure so many disparate ailments, it is wise to be skeptical.  So it comes as no surprise that evidence for it’s effectiveness is slim at best.

The GQ article says, “Studies to support cupping’s efficacy either have been poorly designed (lacking control groups, etc.) or were hilariously biased. This week alone, Slate called cupping ‘another expensive placebo,’ while ScienceBlogs thanked Phelps for ‘glamourizing cupping quackery.’” agrees, saying, “The higher quality studies tend to be negative.  There is no good compelling evidence for any real physiological effect from cupping.”

 Wikipedia sums it up:  Cupping is a pseudoscience, lacking good evidence it has any beneficial health effects, with some risk that it may be harmful…Neither [dry cupping nor wet cupping] have [sic] any verifiable health benefit.”  The site quotes various medical experts, who call it nonsense, a celebrity fad, gibberish, utterly implausible and laughable.

What we have then is another case of traditional Chinese medicine, purporting to cure a whole host of ailments but with no evidence of effectiveness, going mainstream based on a fad and an indirect celebrity endorsement.  As Pete Seeger would say, “When will they ever learn?”

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