During a recent visit to the Medical History Museum in Varna, Bulgaria, I was surprised to see a selection of glass cups. Although I knew that cupping therapy was used in Europe, in my mind as a Chinese Medical Practitioner, I associate the technique very much with China. It was a reminder that this kind of folk medicine has been used all over the world, by both qualified practitioners, and unqualified lay-people.
‘Fire Cupping’ or simply ‘cupping’ is a way of applying suction to the body by creating a vacuum in a glass or plastic ‘cup’ for healing purposes. It is often used to break down knots and relax muscles. It strongly stimulates the circulation, and can be good for pain relief.
It is also used for colds and flu, which in Chinese medicine are seen as the invasion of a pathogen (or ‘evil’) from the environment. Cupping can be used to draw out the pathogen which has invaded the body, and speed recovery.
The traditional method is to create a vacuum in a glass cup by briefly introducing a flame to burn off the oxygen, then placing the cup quickly on the skin, forming an air-tight seal. Before glass was easily available, pieaces of bamboo or even animal horns were often used. Modern cups made of plastic are now available, with a special valve in the top, and a suction gun to suck out the air.
Once practiced, the technique is easy, and I have even seen Chinese mothers use sturdy jam-jars to apply cupping to their children!
Whatever kind of implements are used, the aim is to produce a strong suction. Cupping is an odd sensation, but not painful, although when it’s strongly applied, it leaves a very dark, vivd (and perfectly round) bruise.
Sometimes the cups are left in place – the suction is enough to hold them still, whatever angle they might be at. A milder treatment called ‘flash cupping’ involves placing the cup and then immediately removing it. It is a gentler treatment, used for frail or deficient people, or when it’s important not to leave a bruise. ‘Sliding Cupping’ is used on larger areas, for instance the back – A little oil is applied, and the cups are slid up and down, while maintaining the suction. This is often used for colds.
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