by Jon Pontrello, LAc
A few weeks ago, I went up to Canada to take a curing class with a teacher who had travelled from Australia. This class would not be my introduction to cupping. For the last few years I have been working in a clinic where I learned how to cup and practiced regularly under the guidance of a practitioner who has been cupping since before I was born. My reasoning for taking this class is not because my glass was half empty, but rather because my glass is half full. I am fascinated by cupping because, like an acupuncture needle, a cup is a very simple tool that in the hands of a skilled practitioner can provide a very effective and economical treatment for many health problems.
Cupping is a method of using suction to create a therapeutic effect. This is most commonly done using a cotton ball mini-torch that is carefully inserted into the body of the cupping vessel so that when the flame uses up the available oxygen within the cup, a vacuum is created. When the cup is placed upon the surface of the skin a negative pressure system is created, which causes the suction effect.
Where does the therapeutic effect come from? What does suction have to do with the common cold or back pain? The answer depends on which era of medicine you ask. If you were able to summon people that lived in prehistoric times, they might tell you that the cups pull out evil spirits. We know from the times that traditional medicines of China and Greece were being put into writing around two thousand years ago that they believed the cups were having an effect on the meteorological causes of diseases such as wind and/or cold, and that they helped to move bad, old or stagnant blood. In modern times, researchers also say that cups help to increase circulation, though some people today will tell you the cups have no effect at all and that the benefit is an illusion in the imagination.
One of my favorite stories from the class was from over a century ago when a recent graduate of medical school was doing his apprenticeship with an experienced doctor. They were doing a house call in a rural area of Australia and the patient had a severe case of lumbago (back pain). The doctor asked the apprentice what to do, and the apprentice just shook his head while fumbling over his words trying to remember what he learned in school. So the doctor applied cups and soon after the patient was walking freely without pain. The apprentice was amazed, especially in light of the fact that his professors in medical school had pounded the nail into the coffin of cupping practice, saying it was a useless form of treatment.
There were many other anecdotes in class, one about a lady who got relief from the common cold, saying that she would not believe the benefit of cupping unless she had experienced it herself. Another story of a German spy who had been exposed to radiation who said that the only relief he could find was from a cupping treatment. There was a story of a cupping practitioner from Russia who emigrated to Australia who was so worried that she would not be able to buy cups where she was going that she filled up the only suitcase she could bring with cupping vessels!
One of the nights after my class, I was talking to the host of the AirBnB where I was staying. He was from Tunisia and was very excited to to find out I was learning about cupping. He was Muslim and did not know the cupping existed outside his religion. He did not know a lot about that part of his religion, so we started watching videos on YouTube and he translated them for me. In the Muslim religion, it is called hijama and it is slightly different than the cupping I have described above. They create an small incision in the skin before applying the cups so that the cups fill up with blood, it is usually only done during certain parts of the moon’s phase. It is believed to help to purify the body and mind. Hijama is a revelation of their religion. Their prophet does not claim to invent it, but rather became aware of the benefits and says it is a very valuable thing to do so he recommends it to his followers. The next day I mentioned this in class and many people were surprised to know that Muslims practiced cupping.
On the last day of class, the teacher was showing us a particular method of cupping that focused on knee pain that he had learned from a teacher in Taiwan. He said that once when he was teaching this method, one of the students said he had learned the same method from a teacher in Egypt. Before taking this class I had primarily thought of cupping as one of the many conjunctive therapies to Chinese medicine, but afterwards I’m starting to see it as an integral part to a much bigger picture than I was aware of.
On the way back from Canada the border patrol asked me what I was doing in Vancouver. I told her cupping, and she said she knew about it because of Gwyneth Paltrow. I’ve got to say I am happy that celebrities and Olympic athletes have rekindled the awareness among the public of cupping, but I also want remind people that cupping is not a passing fad like jazzercise or the south beach diet. Cupping is a timeless medicine for the wellness of everyday people.