What is Cupping?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2018
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Cupping is the modern term for an ancient medical treatment popular in Asian and Arab cultures. In the spectrum of holistic or alternative medicine, this treatment is in the same region as acupuncture, bloodletting and acupressure, and many times, these different techniques are used in combination for maximum benefit. Cupping involves using low pressure to create blood-infused areas on the skin as a way to change the patient's energy flow.

Original practitioners used animal horns, leading to the reference "horn treatment" in some sources. These horns would be heated briefly with matches or paper and placed directly on a patient's traditional acupuncture points or source of pain. The heated air inside the horn would create a low pressure area, drawing the skin inside. Later practitioners use cups made from bamboo or clay, but the basic technique remains the same.

This treatment creates a series of blood-infused raised sections on a patient's flesh. It is believed that this creates a negative energy flow which can counteract the current state of stagnation. Cupping creates significant bruising directly under the cups themselves, and there is a small risk of burns from the heating process. Some practitioners use lubricants to allow the cups to be moved across the patient's body, although never across bony structures such as the spine.


During the 20th century, specially-designed glass cups generally replaced the less reliable bamboo and pottery cups. Bamboo tends to weaken over time, especially when combined with steam used to create "wet energy." Ceramic cups tend to break easily, especially during treatments. Glass cups provide a sturdy material and a smoother surface for the gliding form.

An even more recent innovation is a cold suction method. Instead of creating a vacuum through heat, modern cupping sets use glass or plastic cups equipped with one-way valves. As the cups are placed on the patient, a hand-held pump draws out the air through the valves. The clarity of the glass allows the practitioner to gauge the intensity of the suction and evaluate the energy level of the patient.

Cupping is most often used to alleviate the symptoms of systemic diseases and conditions such as asthma, arthritis, bronchitis, and abdominal pains. Some patients also seek treatment for neuromuscular or muscularskeletal ailments, since the process draws up skin and some subcutaneous muscle layers. This treatment is often used to enhance a previous acupuncture treatment or in conjunction with bloodletting. Few studies by Western medical practitioners have ever demonstrated a medical benefit from cupping, but many believers claim a sense of restored energy and pain reduction following treatment.


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Post 5

My experience with cupping was very positive. It was in conjunction with acupuncture treatments. It didn't hurt at all. If fact, the sensation was quite enjoyable and there was greater pain relief and much better energy flow following the treatment.

Post 4

I have had acupuncture treatments and felt they did reduce tension in my body. But, cupping doesn't appeal to me. They say that it doesn't cause any harm, but there's really no evidence that it does any good.

The dark blotches that appear on your skin are really unattractive. The suction from the placement of the cups is supposed to cause the skin to rise and blood rushes in, improving circulation and relieving pain.

Interesting that stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Paris Hilton are strong advocates of cupping.

Post 3

It strikes me that cupping is very similar in principle to the way leeches were used in the past. This is a really ancient art, and quite fascinating.

My friend is always trying out these things. I remember being shocked to see her back when we went swimming, as it was covered in many round red marks. It turned out these were from the vacuum cups used. She was quite proud of them, which is good as they lasted for days!

Next week she's going to ty moxibustion therapy, which involves burning mugwort herbs on your skin. (Presumably through some kind of special device!)

Post 2

@yumdelish - I'm sorry to hear that you had a bad experience with this treatment. It would have been wise for the practitioner to warn you that it would feel strange.

I've been having fire cupping treatments, along with acupuncture for weight loss for a year or so now. It did take a while to get used to the sensation, but I really feel it helped my circulation improve.

If you feel brave enough to try again you may feel the benefit. At least you'd know what was coming when they put the suction cups on your skin, right?

Post 1

My first, and possibly last experience of cupping was at an acupuncture clinic. I'd never tried it before, so was willing to give it a go. It hurt!

It's hard to explain but I felt like something was sucking my skin into a vacuum cleaner! The poor nurse had to try to remove it while I was flailing around the bed screaming. I haven't been back since!

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