Alternative medicine, to paraphrase Tim Minchin, is something that has either not been proven to work or has been proven not to work. When alternative medicine is proven to work, it’s just called medicine. The only benefit things like homeopathy, acupuncture, and most herbal supplements provide is a placebo effect – people believe they’ll feel better after taking them, so they do.
So what’s the harm, you might think? Let them have their quackery if it makes them feel better. But as one woman recently found out, sometimes alternative therapies can be downright dangerous.
After hurting her shoulder in a fall, the Californian sexagenarian tried to ease her pain with a type of cupping therapy – an alternative remedy based on the magical idea that physical discomfort can be caused by “stagnant” blood and poor energy flow. To combat this, practitioners use cups to create suction on the skin, drawing blood to the surface and creating huge, tell-tale bruises – just like the ones we saw on Michael Phelps a couple of years ago.
Cupping has been recorded as far back as Ancient Egyptian times, and like almost everything people did 3,000 years ago, it is supported by basically zero science. While it’s probably safe when performed by a trained professional on a healthy patient, it comes with side effects including burns, infections, and for the woman in California, whose case made it into the journal JAMA Dermatology, a collection of pretty horrific blisters.
The woman used a handheld pump to perform a type of cupping known as “dry cupping” (you don’t even want to know what “wet cupping” is.) In this version, low pressure is created inside a cup that is left on the skin for around three minutes. But unfortunately for this woman, she somehow managed to fall asleep mid-cup. A full 30 minutes later, she woke up to the gnarly ring of flesh bubbles caused by the unsupervised vacuum.
“The vacuum was strong enough to split the skin, separating the normal two [top and bottom] layers of skin,” case report co-author Dr Maria Wei explained to Live Science. “This case illustrates the need for supervision while performing cupping with a mechanical device… If properly monitored, it shouldn't be a problem.”
[H/T: Live Science]