Cupping Around the World

     A few weeks ago I went up to Canada to take a cupping class with a teacher who had travelled from Australia. This class would not be my introduction to cupping. For the last few years I have been working in a clinic where I learned how to cup and practiced regularly under the guidance of a practitioner who has been cupping since before I was born. My reasoning for taking this class is not because my glass was half empty, but rather because my glass is half full. I am fascinated by cupping because, like an acupuncture needle, a cup is a very simple tool that in the hands of a skilled practitioner can provide a very effective and economical treatment for many health problems.
     Cupping is a method of using suction to create a therapeutic effect. This is most commonly done using a cotton ball mini-torch that is carefully inserted into the body of the cupping vessel so that when the flame uses up the available oxygen within the cup, a vacuum is created. When the cup is placed upon the surface of the skin a negative pressure system is created, which causes the suction effect.
     Where does the therapeutic effect come from? What does suction have to do with the common cold or back pain? The answer depends on which era of medicine you ask. If you were able to summon people that lived in prehistoric times, they might tell you that the cups pull out evil spirits. We know from the times that traditional medicines of China and Greece were being put into writing around two thousand years ago that they believed the cups were having an effect on the meteorological causes of diseases such as wind and/or cold, and that they helped to move bad, old or stagnant blood. In modern times, researchers also say that cups help to increase circulation, though some people today will tell you the cups have no effect at all and that the benefit is an illusion in the imagination.
     One of my favorite stories from the class was from over a century ago when a recent graduate of medical school was doing his apprenticeship with an experienced doctor. They were doing a house call in a rural area of Australia and the patient had a severe case of lumbago (back pain). The doctor asked the apprentice what to do, and the apprentice just shook his head while fumbling over his words trying to remember what he learned in school. So the doctor applied cups and soon after the patient was walking freely without pain. The apprentice was amazed, especially in light of the fact that his professors in medical school had pounded the nail into the coffin of cupping practice, saying it was a useless form of treatment.
     There were many other anecdotes in class, one about a lady who got relief from the common cold, saying that she would not believe the benefit of cupping unless she had experienced it herself. Another story of a German spy who had been exposed to radiation who said that the only relief he could find was from a cupping treatment. There was a story of a cupping practitioner from Russia who emigrated to Australia who was so worried that she would not be able to buy cups where she was going that she filled up the only suitcase she could bring with cupping vessels!
     One of the nights after my class, I was talking to the host of the AirBnB where I was staying. He was from Tunisia and was very excited to to find out I was learning about cupping. He was Muslim and did not know the cupping existed outside his religion. He did not know a lot about that part of his religion, so we started watching videos on YouTube and he translated them for me. In the Muslim religion, it is called hijama and it is slightly different than the cupping I have described above. They create an small incision in the skin before applying the cups so that the cups fill up with blood, it is usually only done during certain parts of the moon’s phase. It is believed to help to purify the body and mind. Hijama is a revelation of their religion. Their prophet does not claim to invent it, but rather became aware of the benefits and says it is a very valuable thing to do so he recommends it to his followers. The next day I mentioned this in class and many people were surprised to know that Muslims practiced cupping.
     On the last day of class, the teacher was showing us a particular method of cupping that focused on knee pain that he had learned from a teacher in Taiwan. He said that once when he was teaching this method, one of the students said he had learned the same method from a teacher in Egypt. Before taking this class I had primarily thought of cupping as one of the many conjunctive therapies to Chinese medicine, but afterwards I’m starting to see it as an integral part to a much bigger picture than I was aware of.
     On the way back from Canada the border patrol asked me what I was doing in Vancouver. I told her cupping, and she said she knew about it because of Gwyneth Paltrow. I’ve got to say I am happy that celebrities and Olympic athletes have rekindled the awareness among the public of cupping, but I also want remind people that cupping is not a passing fad like jazzercise or the south beach diet. Cupping is a timeless medicine for the wellness of everyday people.
The class was offered by Bruce Bentley of Health Traditions. Check out the website to learn more about the subject:

What the heck is snake oil? 

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Traditional Chinese Medicine uses many different substances from the animal, mineral and plant world for their curative effects. Different species of snakes, such as Agkistrodon and Zaocys have a very strong medicinal effect, most commonly used for pain relief for arthritis and joint problems. The use of snake products for their medicinal effects first became well known in America during the time that Chinese immigrants were working on the railroad. They brought the snake products with them from China and most commonly used them as an analgesic (pain relievers).


It was also around this time that people realized they could make a lot of money from the strong medicinal effect that comes from snakes, thus the “snake oil salesmen” was born. In Chinese culture, there is respect and understanding for the power of herbs. For thousands of years, the ways of preparing and using an herb have been refined to insure safety and effectiveness by people who devoted their life to the careful study of medical wisdom. Meanwhile in America, many snake oil salesmen were popping up overnight. Some of them may have had good intentions, but they were mostly known as frauds willing to cut corners in making their products and saying anything to get people to fork over their hard earned money for the promise of a panacea.

This reminds me of what happened to Ephedra in the 1990’s. Ephedra, also known as Ma Huang, is another Chinese herb in use for thousands of years in the treatment of colds at the initial stage. Ephedra is a very powerful diaphoretic and diuretic, which means it has a very powerful effect in making people sweat and urinate. This herb can be very effective and helping someone to get rid of a specific type of cold at the initial stage, however if used at the wrong time it can make the cold worse, and if used on the wrong person it could have a very negative effect. For this reason, this herb is prescribed with great care. During the 1990’s ephedra became a very popular diet herb in the USA. It increased the metabolism and was believed to help people lose weight. Many people started taking this herb on a a regular basis and it has caused a lot of people to end up in the hospital. Its misuse has been linked to heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and other heart problems. The most unfortunate thing of all of this is the scientific community uses these stories of the “snake oil salesmen” as fuel for why these “dangerous” herbs should be banned.

Check out this article to learn more about the history of snake oil:

Thoughts from the clinic

Breeched Baby

A patient was recommended by her MD to come to the clinic to get moxibustion to turn her breeched baby. She was treated on Tuesday, and was recommended to come for 2 more treatments before her next check up. She called to cancel today because the baby turned over. This is something we commonly treat with great results as acupuncturists. I think this helps people see the validity of Chinese Medicine, an immediate physical result. Chinese Medicine also treats a wide variety of illnesses. Turning a breeched baby is a small (but very important part) of the reproductive process. We also treat infertility to help people get pregnant, and labor induction if the baby is not coming, as well as many other diseases related to pregnancy such as morning sickness or back pain. We also treat diseases that can arise after pregnancy, such as post partum depression and fatigue. We can also treat some of the acute sicknesses of babies and small children, such as colic, fever or the common cold. The reproductive system and pediatrics are two branches of Chinese Medicine among many. Turning a breeched baby is a leaf on the tree of Chinese Medicine.