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Chinese Medicine Basics

What Is Cupping?

Cupping is an an ancient therapy

Published on 08/07/2016
Integrative MedicineChinese MedicineChinese Medicine BasicsSkin BasicsTraditional Chinese Medicine ApproachesSkin ProcedureTCM
Cupping devices arranged upside down

Cupping is an ancient therapy from traditional East Asian medicine that has traveled throughout the world. The Chinese call it “Ba Hou Guan” (fire cupping).  In Yiddish it is “Bankes” and in Arabic, it is “Al-Hijama.”[1]

Cupping was once a common home remedy for colds, fevers, and muscle aches. As it became more popular, cupping even made it into movies such as Zorba the Greek and the second Godfather movie. Nowadays, it’s quite common to see a celebrity with cupping bruises on their back get into the gossip pages. 

How is Cupping Done? 

Cupping is performed by depressurizing the inside of the cup with a flame or a vacuum pump, so it then lifts up the skin below it. Traditionally, cupping is thought to work by increasing circulation and removing heat from the body.[2] It is used for a wide range of conditions including stress, muscle pain, arthritis, chest colds and fevers, and even some skin conditions.[3]

Plastic and glass are the most common materials used today. Occasionally, wooden cups will be used which can be soaked in herbal preparations as a delivery method for the herbs.  Cups generally range in size from 1-3 inches across the opening. 

Cupping Techniques

Different cupping techniques are used depending on the therapeutic goal. Flash fire cupping is when the cups are rapidly and repeatedly placed close to one another on a region of the body, the upper back for example. Sliding cups are when a lubricant, such as petroleum jelly or a waxy balm, is rubbed into an area of the body like the back. The cups are positioned over the balm and slide back and forth throughout a region.  These techniques are both considered dry cupping and are excellent for muscle pain, arthritis, and chest congestion. [4,5]

Bleeding cupping, also called wet cupping, is another technique. The skin is pricked with a lancet and the cup is placed over the area. The suction from the cup will draw blood through the incision.  The bleeding is thought to remove heat and stagnation from the body.  Wet cupping is more often used to reduce swelling, inflammation, and for removing heat from the body. It is very often used for swelling after an acute sprain or strain.[6]

Cupping may also be combined with acupuncture. The cup is placed over the acupuncture needle to enhance the effect of moving stagnation and promoting circulation. [2]

How Does Cupping Work?

According to Chinese medicine, cupping helps to stimulate the circulation of Qi and blood and remove heat toxins from the body.  We don’t know everything about how cupping works yet, but some researchers are starting to piece it together. Wet cupping has been shown to have an antioxidant effect[7] and may also have an anti-inflammatory effect.[1]

Cupping for Skin Conditions

Many skin conditions are caused by heat and stagnation. Wet cupping, in particular, is used for these skin conditions because it can remove heat and stagnation. Wet cupping has shown potential for treating acne,[8] particularly cystic acne,[1] as well as some small positive studies for urticaria[9] and herpes zoster.[10]

A few small reports and traditional sources suggest that wet cupping may be effective for eczema.[11,12] While cupping may be a useful therapy for treating heat conditions, the skin of those afflicted with eczema can be very sensitive.  The pressure of the cupping may aggravate the skin and is best to be avoided, particularly in severe cases.  There is one published case study of an eczema flare after cupping.[13] Cupping for psoriasis should be avoided because it is likely to cause the development of new psoriasis lesions.[14,15]

Cupping is an ancient healing technique that is still in common practice today. It is safe and may be effective for many types of conditions including some skin conditions such as acne and herpes zoster. Special considerations must be made for eczema and should be avoided in psoriasis. Cupping may be performed independently, but is often combined with acupuncture or herbal medicine.


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