This is my version of a post which I was asked to write for the Independent. It’s been published, though so many changes were made by the editor that I’m posting the original here (below).
Superstition is rife in all sports. Mostly it does no harm, and it might even have a placebo effect that’s sufficient to make a difference of 0.01%. That might just get you a medal. But what does matter is that superstition has given rise to an army of charlatans who are only to willing to sell their magic medicine to athletes, most of whom are not nearly as rich as Phelps.
So much has been said about cupping during the last week
that it’s hard to say much that’s original. Yesterday I did six radio interviews and two for TV, and today Associated Press TV came to film a piece about it. Everyone else must have been on holiday. The only one I’ve checked was the piece on the BBC News channel. That one didn’t seem to go too badly, so it’s here
BBC news coverage
It starts with the usual lengthy, but uninformative, pictures of someone being cupped, The cupper in this case was actually a chiropractor, Rizwhan Suleman. Chiropractic is, of course a totally different form of alternative medicine and its value has been totally discredited in the wake of the Simon Singh case. It’s not unusual for people to sell different therapies with conflicting beliefs. Truth is irrelevant. Once you’ve believed one impossible thing, it seems that the next ones become quite easy.
The presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, gave me a fair chance to debunk it afterwards.
Nevertheless, the programme suffered from the usual pretence that there is a controversy about the medical value of cupping. There isn’t. But despite Steve Jones’ excellent report to the BBC Trust, the media insist on giving equal time to flat-earth advocates. The report, (Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science) was no doubt commissioned with good intentions, but it’s been largely ignored.
Still worse, the BBC News Channel, when it repeated the item (its cycle time is quite short) showed only Rizwhan Suleman and cut out my comments altogether. This is not false balance. It’s no balance whatsoever. A formal complaint has been sent. It is not the job of the BBC to provide free advertising to quacks.
After this, a friend drew my attention to a much worse programme on the subject.
The Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2, at 12.00 on August 10th, 2016. This was presented by Vanessa Feltz. It was beyond appalling. There was absolutely zero attempt at balance, false or otherwise. The guest was described as being am "expert" on cupping. He was Yusef Noden, of the London Hijama Clinic, who "trained and qualified with the Hijama & Prophetic Medicine Institute". No doubt he’s a nice bloke, but he really could use a first year course in physiology. His words were pure make-believe. His repeated statements about "withdrawing toxins" are well know to be absolutely untrue. It was embarrassing to listen to. If you really want to hear it, here is an audio recording.
The Jeremy Vine show
This programme is one of the worst cases I’ve heard of the BBC mis-educating the public by providing free advertising for quite outrageous quackery. Another complaint will be submitted. The only form of opposition was a few callers who pointed out the nonsense, mixed with callers who endorsed it. That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, fair and balanced.
It’s interesting that, although cupping is often associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine, neither of the proponents in these two shows was Chinese, but rather they were Muslim. This should not be surprising as neither cupping nor acupuncture are exclusively Chinese. Similar myths have arisen in many places. My first encounter with this particular branch of magic medicine was when I was asked to make a podcast for “Things Unseen”, in which I debated with a Muslim hijama practitioner and an Indian Ayurvedic practitioner. It’s even harder to talk sense to practitioners of magic medicine who believe that god is on their side, as well as believing that selling nonsense is a good way to make a living.
An excellent history of the complex emergence of similar myths in different parts of the world has been published by Ben Kavoussi, under the title "Acupuncture is astrology with needles".
Now the original version of my blog for the Independent.
Cupping: Michael Phelps and Gwyneth Paltrow may be believers, but the truth behind it is what really sucks
The sight of Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, with bruises on his body caused by cupping resulted in something of a media feeding-frenzy this week. He’s a great athlete so cupping must be responsible for his performance, right? Just as cupping must be responsible for the complexion of an earlier enthusiast, Gwyneth Paltrow.
The main thing in common between Phelps and Paltrow is that they both have a great deal of money, and neither has much interest in how you distinguish truth from myth. They can afford to indulge any whim, however silly.
And cupping is pretty silly. It’s a pre-scientific medical practice that started in a time when there was no understanding of physiology, much like bloodletting. Indeed one version does involve a bit of bloodletting. Perhaps bloodletting is the best argument against the belief that it’s ancient wisdom, so it must work. It was a standard part of medical treatment for hundreds of years, and killed countless people.
It is desperately implausible that putting suction cups on your skin would benefit anything, so it’s not surprising that there is no worthwhile empirical evidence that it does. The Chinese version of cupping is related to acupuncture and, unlike cupping, acupuncture has been very thoroughly tested. Over 3000 trials have failed to show any benefit that’s big enough to benefit patients. Acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo. And even its placebo effects are too small to be useful.
At least it’s likely that cupping usually does no lasting damage.. We don’t know for sure because in the world of alternative medicine there is no system for recording bad effects (and there is a vested interest in not reporting them). In extreme cases, it can leave holes in your skin that pose a serious danger of infection, but most people probably end up with just broken capillaries and bruises. Why would anyone want that?
The answer to that question seems to be a mixture of wishful thinking about the benefits and vastly exaggerated claims made by the people who sell the product.
It’s typical that the sales people can’t even agree on what the benefits are alleged to be. If selling to athletes, the claim may be that it relieves pain, or that it aids recovery, or that it increases performance. Exactly the same cupping methods are sold to celebs with the claim that their beauty will be improved because cupping will “boost your immune system”. This claim is universal in the world of make-believe medicine, when the salespeople can think of nothing else. There is no surer sign of quackery. It means nothing whatsoever. No procedure is known to boost your immune system. And even if anything did, it would be more likely to cause inflammation and blood clots than to help you run faster or improve your complexion.
It’s certainly most unlikely that sucking up bits of skin into evacuated jars would have any noticeable effect on blood flow in underlying muscles, and so increase your performance. The salespeople would undoubtedly benefit from a first year physiology course.
Needless to say, they haven’t tried to actually measuring blood flow, or performance. To do that might reduce sales. As Kate Carter said recently “Eating jam out of those jars would probably have a more significant physical impact”.
The problem with all sports medicine is that tiny effects could make a difference. When three hour endurance events end with a second or so separating the winner from the rest, that is an effect of less than 0.01%. Such tiny effects will never be detectable experimentally. That leaves the door open to every charlatan to sell miracle treatments that might just work. If, like steroids, they do work, there is a good chance that they’ll harm your health in the long run.
You might be better off eating the jam.
Here is a very small selection of the many excellent accounts of cupping on the web.
There have been many good blogs. The mainstream media have, on the whole, been dire. Here are three that I like,
In July 2016, Orac posted in ScienceBlogs. "What’s the harm? Cupping edition". He used his expertise as a surgeon to explain the appalling wounds that can be produced by excessive cupping.
Photo from news,com.au
Timothy Caulfield, wrote "Olympic debunk!". He’s Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything.
“The Olympics are a wonderful celebration of athletic performance. But they have also become an international festival of sports pseudoscience. It will take an Olympic–sized effort to fight this bunk and bring a win to the side of evidence-based practice.”
Jennifer Raff wrote Pseudoscience is common among elite athletes outside of the Olympics too…and it makes me furious. She works on the genomes of modern and ancient people at the University of Kansas, and, as though that were not a full-time job for most people, she writes blogs, books and she’s also "training (and occasionally competing) in Muay Thai, boxing, BJJ, and MMA".
"I’m completely unsurprised to find that pseudoscience is common among the elite athletes competing in the Olympics. I’ve seen similar things rampant in the combat sports world as well."
What she writes makes perfect sense. Just don’t bother with the comments section which is littered with Trump-like post-factual comments from anonymous conspiracy theorists.