Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin. Cupping has been characterized as a pseudoscience.
Cupping is generally safe when applied by trained professionals on people who are otherwise healthy It is not recommended for people with health problems due to side effects. Cupping is not recommended as a replacement for typical treatment. Cupping may result in bruising, burns, pain, and/or skin infection. Research suggests that cupping is harmful, especially in people who are thin or obese or diabetes sufferers.
While details vary between practitioners, societies, and cultures, the practice consists of drawing tissue into a cap placed on the targeted area by creating a partial vacuum – either by the heating and subsequent cooling of the air in the cup, or via a mechanical pump. The cup is usually left in place for somewhere between five and fifteen minutes.
Cupping therapy types can be classified using four distinct methods of categorization. The first system of categorization relates to “technical types” including: dry, wet, massage, and flash cupping therapy. The second categorization relates to “the power of suction related types” including: light, medium, and strong cupping therapy. The third categorization relates to “the method of suction related types” including: fire, manual suction, and electrical suction cupping therapy. The fourth categorization relates to “materials inside cups” including: herbal products, water, ozone, moxa, needle, and magnetic cupping therapy.
The cupping procedure commonly involves creating a small area of low air pressure next to the skin. However, there are varieties in the tools used, the methods of creating the low pressure, and the procedures followed during the treatment.
The cups can be of various shapes including balls or bells, and may range in size from 1 to 3 inches (25 to 76 mm) across the opening. Plastic and glass are the most common materials used today, replacing the horn, pottery, bronze and bamboo cups used in earlier times. The low air pressure required may be created by heating the cup or the air inside it with an open flame or a bath in hot scented oils, then placing it against the skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it contracts and draws the skin slightly inside. More recently, vacuum is created with a mechanical suction pump acting through a valve located at the top of the cup. Rubber cups are also available that squeeze the air out and adapt to uneven or bony surfaces.
In practice, cups are normally used only on softer tissue that can form a good seal with the edge of the cup. They may be used singly or with many to cover a larger area. They may be used by themselves or placed over an acupuncture needle. Skin may be lubricated, allowing the cup to move across the skin slowly.
Skin markings are common after the cups are removed, varying from simple red rings that disappear relatively quickly, to discolourisation from bruising, especially if the cups are dragged while suctioned from one place to another, ostensibly to break down muscle fiber. Usually treatments are not very painful.
Wet cupping is also known as Hijama (Arabic: حجامة lit. “Sucking”) or medicinal bleeding, where blood is drawn by local suction from a small skin incision. The first reported usages are found in the Islamic hadith, sayings attributed to or describing the actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. As a result, wet cupping has remained a popular remedy practiced in many parts of the Muslim world.
In Finland, wet cupping has been done at least since the 15th century, and it is done traditionally in saunas. The cupping cups were made of cattle horns with a valve mechanism in it to create a partial vacuum by sucking the air out. Cupping is still practiced in Finland as part of relaxing and/or health regimens.
Traditional Chinese medicine:
Woman receiving fire cupping at a roadside business in Haikou, Hainan, China
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), cupping is done to dispel stagnation (stagnant blood and lymph), thereby improving qi flow, in order to treat respiratory diseases such as the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis. Cupping also is used on back, neck, shoulder and other musculoskeletal conditions. Its advocates claim it has other applications as well. Cupping is not advised, in TCM, over skin ulcers or to the abdominal or sacral regions of pregnant women.
For over 3,000 years, the practice has been typically performed unsupervised, by individuals without any medical background. Iranian traditional medicine uses wet-cupping practices, with the belief that cupping with scarification may eliminate scar tissue, and cupping without scarification would cleanse the body through the organs. Individuals with a profound interest in the practice are typically very religious and seek “purification.”
There is reason to believe the practice dates from as early as 3000 BC.The Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BC and one of the oldest medical textbooks in the Western world, describes the Egyptians use of cupping, while mentioning similar practices employed by Saharan peoples. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates (c. 400 BC) used cupping for internal disease and structural problems. The method was highly recommended by Muhammad and hence well-practiced by Muslim scientists who elaborated and developed the method further. Consecutively, this method in its multiple forms spread into medicine throughout Asian and European civilizations. In China, the earliest use of cupping that is recorded is from the famous Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong (281–341 A.D.).Cupping was also mentioned in Maimonides’ book on health and was used within the Eastern European Jewish community.
Cupping has gained publicity in modern times due to its use by American sport celebrities. There is a description of cupping in George Orwell’s essay “How the Poor Die”, where he was surprised to find it practiced in a Paris hospital.