Cupping Therapy
By Ann Wolman, L.Ac.

Many patients have experienced cupping as part of their treatment at the Chinese Acupuncture Clinic and have expressed curiosity regarding its origins and uses. Cupping has been widely used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In ancient times, it was known as "horn cupping" and/or "bamboo jar therapy." Now cups are almost exclusively made of glass.

Early treatments focused on swellings and purulent swellings; however, over the years, cupping therapy has been expanded to treat a wide variety of applications. The use of cupping therapy has spread around the world and is now commonly seen in places as diverse as Cyprus, the Philippines and Turkey.

Cupping is done by creating a vacuum in a cup or jar, usually by means of heat, and applying the cup to the skin to draw up the underlying tissue. The amount of suction can be relatively great or mild depending upon the condition being treated. Usually a cotton ball is held in a pair of hemostats and dipped in alcohol. The cotton is ignited and inserted into the mouth of the cup while it is burning. The cotton ball is withdrawn quickly, and a vacuum is created as the cup is placed firmly against the skin at the desired location.

Cups can be moved (put an oil or liniment on the skin before applying) or left stationary over a particular area, for example, over the lungs to help decongest and ease breathing. Cupping can be combined with the application of liniments and with acupuncture. To remove cups, simply press against the skin at the base of the cup to break the "seal."

There are a few cautionary measures to keep in mind while using cups. Cupping should not be applied where skin is not smooth, or where there is a lot of hair, as it may be difficult to maintain suction under cups. Cupping should also not be applied over any abrasions or cuts. Smaller cups are often used around joints because they have rounded or angular surfaces. Too many cups placed closely together may pull surrounding tissue and cause pain. Cups should not be moved over bony prominences like the spine. Cups should not be left on for long periods of time (more than 15 minutes) to avoid blistering. Cupping should be avoided in areas where it would not be appropriate to have mild discoloration of the skin, like the face. Do not try to pry cups off from the top when removing them.

Cups can create bruising depending on the strength of the cupping process. This is normal and will resolve like any other bruise, disappearing without special treatment. Be careful not to apply a second group of cups until the skin has returned to its normal color.

Cupping has several advantages. It is safe, as long as it is properly administered, simple to perform, cost-effective and can be done at home as part of a self-care program. Cupping feels good, because it warms the area, releases heat and stagnation and relaxes muscles. I have one 5-year-old patient who regularly requests that "we do that cupping thing" on his back. Cups can be inexpensively purchased at the clinic, and your practitioner will happily go over an individualized treatment plan that can include cupping at home. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.

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