A Short History of Cupping

August 18, 2016 4:52 pm Last Updated: August 22, 2016 11:05 am

Cupping is a form of therapy widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It consists of creating a local suction on the skin using either heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps). It is believed this method draws out toxins, mobilizes blood flow, soothes muscle pain and, in some cases, helps cure insomnia.

At the Rio Olympic Games, American swimmer Michael Phelps caught everybody’s attention not only for his remarkable achievements, but also for some dark purple circles on his shoulders and back. They were the result of having undergone the “cupping” technique to relax his muscles before entering the races.

The Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BC, considered one of the oldest medical textbooks in the Western world, describes how the Egyptians used cupping to help cure some frequent medical issues and how it was also used by Saharan peoples. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, used this technique c. 400 BC to treat internal disease and some structural problems.

Ge Hong (281-341 A.D.) who was a minor southern official during the Jin Dynasty was the first to use it in China. He was interested in alchemy, herbalism, and techniques of longevity. Ge Hong popularized the saying, “Acupuncture and cupping cures more than half of the ills.” Later on, this method found its way throughout Asia and Europe. In 1465, Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu, a Turkish surgeon, recommended this technique which he called “mihceme.”

In the dry cupping procedure, practitioners place specialized cups on the skin. They then use either heat or an air pump to create suction between the cup and the skin. As a result, a vacuum is created on the patient’s skin, dispelling stagnant blood and lymph, thereby improving the flow of qi. It is used on the back, shoulders, and other muscles such as those on the back of the neck. Skin markings are common after the cups are removed, the result of the rupture of capillaries located under the skin..

Athletes who use this technique claim that it is highly effective. Other athletes who use this technique are U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour and Belarusian swimmer Pavel Sankovich, who said that cupping is a great recovery tool. Among American actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aliston and Canadian pop star Justin Bieber uses it.

A patient receives cupping treatment at a Chinese medicine clinic in Hong Kong on Aug. 10, 2016. The Chinese treatment, also known as "ba guan," utilizes heated glass cups to create a suction on the patient's skin, causing a circular mark that looks like bruising on the skin. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)
A patient receives cupping treatment at a Chinese medicine clinic in Hong Kong on Aug. 10, 2016. The Chinese treatment, also known as “ba guan,” utilizes heated glass cups to create a suction on the patient’s skin, causing a circular mark that looks like bruising on the skin. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

In the United States, the technique was very popular until approximately the 1950s, and now is only used occasionally by the general population. In an essay entitled “How the Poor Die,” the British writer George Orwell describes his surprise when he saw it practiced in a hospital in Paris.

Following the Phelps incident, there has been a significant increase in the sales of cupping equipment, according to Jessica MacLean, acting director of the International Cupping Therapy Association. Phelps himself featured a promotional cupping treatment in a recent video for a sponsor. New silicone cups alleviate bruising provoked by traditional cupping.

Cupping has been used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. Among them, blood disorders, rheumatic diseases, gynecological problems, and skin disorders such as eczema and acne. Those who receive the treatment also claim improvement in their physical and psychological well-being.

Cupping has also been used by some as an alternative treatment for cancer. Despite the practitioners’ claim for effectiveness, however, the American Cancer Society said recently, “There is no scientific rationale for expecting any health benefit from cupping,” warning that the treatment also carries a small risk of burns.

It is very difficult to carry out controlled experiments to test the efficacy of cupping. However, an experiment involving 40 patients suffering from knee arthritis, reported less pain after four months of treatment compared to those who hadn’t received the cupping treatment.

The obvious question is, in essence, how effective is this treatment? One cannot deny that there could be a placebo effect. This is a beneficial effect, produced by a placebo drug or treatment that cannot be attributed to their properties, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment. Perhaps, as with other alternative treatments, cupping is a as good as it makes you feel.

César Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is a global public health consultant for several U.N. and other international agencies. He has carried out health-related missions in 50 countries worldwide. He lives in New York and writes extensively on human rights and foreign policy issues, and is the recipient of awards from Overseas Press Club of America, ADEPA, and Chaski, and recently received the Cedar of Lebanon Gold Medal. He is also the author of several U.N. official publications on health issues.

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