Cupping has been a part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years and is practiced today by many acupuncturists and herbalists. It is often used as an alternative to acupuncture and can be applied to most of the same acupuncture points and meridians although some points may be too small for cupping. It is used in China today primarily to treat respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis but is also used for arthritis, low back pain, depression, gastrointestinal problems and many types of pain in large soft tissue areas.
Sometimes cupping is used after acupuncture to further stimulate the flow of blood and qi to the area. The general idea is to create a partial vacuum inside a cup, which is then placed on the skin. The suction on the surface of the skin from the cup stimulates blood flow in the area, relieves congestion and inflammation in the muscles and opens up pathways to eliminate toxins. In ancient Chinese practice, the cups were made of bamboo, animal horns or pottery. Today the cups are most often made of thick glass so that the acupuncturist can see the skin under the cup.
The most common way of creating a vacuum inside the cup is to burn something inside the cup, often a cotton ball soaked in alcohol or a candle. The burning consumes the oxygen inside the cup, which lowers the density of the air inside thereby creating a partial vacuum. The cup is then quickly turned upside down and the open end is placed on the skin. The partial vacuum holds the cup in place but, if necessary, oil can be placed on the skin before hand so that the cup can be moved around.
This method is called gliding cupping and can be used to cover a fairly large area of skin. However, more often many cups are used at once to cover a large area such as the back or abdomen. Cups are usually applied to acupuncture points but can also be used on specific areas of pain. In a normal cupping session, the cups are left in place for 10 to 15 minutes.
Burning something inside the cup, referred to as dry or fire cupping is only one way of creating the suction. A more modern technique is to use a vacuum pump or flexible suction cup attached to the glass cup to draw out the air after the cup has been placed on the skin. This method is called air cupping.
In some cases, the skin is pricked with a needle before the cup is applied. This is called wet cupping and is believed to help remove toxins from the body. Usually only a few drops of blood are drawn out by the pressure during wet cupping.
Cupping is considered to be fairly safe but should not be used on rashes or on people who bleed easily or have a high fever. There is no sensation of pain from cupping although you will definitely feel the pulling on your skin. Occasionally a minor skin bruise can be seen after cupping but it usually clears up after a few days. As an alternative to using acupuncture needles, cupping avoids the pain and puncturing of the skin and does not demand an experienced practitioner. There is no danger of needle injury or infection.
Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Acupuncture
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