Cupping is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for certain health conditions. Glass or bamboo cups are placed on the skin with suction, which is believed to influence the flow of energy and blood in the body. Cupping should not be confused with the percussive technique in Swedish massage called "cupping" or "clapping."
Cupping was originally called "horn therapy" in ancient China, but variations of it have been used in Turkey, Greece, France, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Cupping has a long history of use in acupuncture practice and has been combined with bloodletting, but it is a therapy in its own right. There are specialist cupping practitioners in Japan.
Cupping is a safe, non-invasive, and inexpensive technique. It is used by practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat colds, lung infections, and problems in the internal organs. It is also used to treat muscle and joint pain and spasms, particularly in the back. Cupping can be used on people for whom the injection of acupuncture needles poses a problem or risk. Cupping therapy is thought to stimulate blood circulation.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine begin treatment by diagnosing a patient through interviews, close examinations of the pulse, tongue and other parts of the body, and other methods. TCM strives to balance
and improve the flow of qi, or life energy, which travels throughout the body in channels called meridians. According to traditional Chinese medicine, illness is caused when qi does not move properly in the body. Acupuncturists are trained to determine where qi is stagnated, weak, or out of balance.
Acupuncturists use cupping for specific problems in the flow of qi. Cupping disperses and moves qi by exerting suction and pressure. Cupping is used when the qi is blocked at certain points, or when qi needs to be drawn to the surface of the body from deep within. For instance, cupping is used to treat lung infections and colds, because it is believed that the suction disperses and energizes the qi that has become blocked and stagnated in the lungs. Cups can also pull out "wind-cold" that in Chinese medicine is believed to cause lung infections.
Patients usually lie down for a cupping treatment. Cups are made of bamboo or strong glass. To create a vacuum, a flame from a lighter or a burning cotton ball is placed in an upside-down cup. When the oxygen in the cup is burned off, the cup is placed directly on the skin, where it is held in place by a surprisingly strong suction. Often, the skin inside the cup visibly rises. There are also cups available that use pumps instead of burning to create the proper suction. Cupping is generally a painless procedure.
More than one cup at a time may be used to cover an area thoroughly. Cups may be left in the same place for several minutes, or removed quickly and placed elsewhere. Cups are sometimes placed over acupuncture needles that have been inserted. Moving cupping may also be performed, by first rubbing the skin with a small amount of oil to allow the cups to slide around. After cupping, patients may remain lying down for several minutes. When cups are used to treat colds and lung infections, patients are advised to wrap up in blankets to stay warm after treatment. Acupuncturists may also prescribe herbal remedies, dietary changes, and other health recommendations.
Cupping should be performed by experienced professionals. Although it is a simple treatment, people should not attempt it on themselves. Improper glass vessels can shatter and cause injury, and cupping may cause bruising.
Cupping causes blood to be drawn to the surface of the skin, which can cause red marks, swelling, and bruising.
Fleischman, Dr. Gary F. Acupuncture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1998.
Williams, Tom, Ph.D. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Chinese Medicine. Rockport, MA: Element, 1996.
American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. 433 Front St., Catasaugua, PA 18032. (610) 266-1433.