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We have recently seen cupping marks, or what appears to be tennis ball size circular reddish/bluish marks on Michael Phelps and other Olympic athletes. There are a number of names and explanations for what these marks are. Let’s take a closer look at this and the history related to this ancient health remedy.

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Along with the high-tech training, equipment and treatment methods, we are seeing evidence of the rise of complementary medicine within the developed world. The wellness movement, the rise of East Asian Medicine, an interest in relational, subjective, holistic perspectives returning to give counter-weight to our recent era of analytical, objective, reductionist view of the world and the human body. For many of us, this is a natural addition to the established healthcare system and takes nothing away from biomedicine and its effectiveness. This is about providing a comprehensive approach to health and human life.

In Chinese medicine cupping can be used as a general preventative method of promoting health, as well as for the simple treatment of tight, sore or stiff muscles. It is also used from a more clinical perspective to treat general health conditions including arthritic pain, digestive disorders, headache, hypertension, common cold, cough, lower back pain, painful menstruation and painful eye conditions.

Cupping generally leaves marks, that look like perfect round bruises. The benefits are believed to be associated with drawing up fluids from deeper tissue stagnation to the surface, allowing those deeper areas to be flushed with fresh oxygenated blood, while stagnation is moved to the surface where the body has a better ability to resolve it.

The theory of Acupuncture & Oriental medicine notes that many diseases are due to stagnation, or ‘blocked Qi’ and cupping is one of the methods that can restore normal circulation in areas of congestion, and therefore improve health and restore balance.

Cupping is considered to be one of the oldest natural healing therapies, which some archeologists believe to date back as far as 3000BCE. Hippocrates (460-370BCE) was known for using cupping for internal diseases and structural problems. It has been used as a folk remedy in and around the Mediterranean until quite recently, including countries such as France, Lebanon, Greece, Italy and Germany as you will find many grandparents in these areas with knowledge of these methods prior to the rise of modern biomedicine.

The earliest record of cupping is from approximately 1550BCE by the Egyptians, recorded in the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world.

Archeologists also found evidence in China of cupping dating as far back as 1000BCE. The earliest documentation of cupping we have from China was by Ge Hong (282-341CE) in his ‘Handbook of Prescriptions For Emergencies’. Ge Hong was a well known Taoist alchemist and medicinal herbalist that held close ties with the Imperial Court.

Cupping as a therapeutic practice spread through the medicine world, throughout Asian and European civilizations. Each culture having their own name for cupping therapy and their own methods of cupping. Here are some of the names that cupping is known as by the various cultures that embraced it: Hijamah; Baguanfa; Jiaofa; Bentusa; Vendouse; Gac Hoi; Bahnkes; Kyukaku; Ventosaterapia; Schröpfen; Kupa Cekme; Bankovani; Ventouzzes; Vacuume Terapi.

There are a number of contra-indications as well as potential problems using cupping, so I recommend you find an experienced and trained professional. As we have seen, there are many traditions as well as many competent modern therapists that utilize cupping and it is not exclusively Chinese medicine. However, if you are looking for a professional with extensive training and experience in cupping you can rely on your local Acupuncturist or Oriental medicine practitioner, as it is still an established part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) training and practice.

More on the cupping technique and materials used

Cupping refers to a Chinese medicine practice in which a kind of suction cup is applied to the skin. The skin and superficial muscle layer are drawn up into the cup and held there. The cup is generally left in place 5-15 minutes depending on the intensity of suction, the area being treated and the desired effect.

There are various methods of causing a partial vacuum in the cup. The most popular traditional way was to attach a cotton ball to a stick, dip it in alcohol, ignite the cotton and insert the burning cotton into the mouth of the cup. Withdraw the cotton stick and quickly place the mouth of the cup firmly against the skin at the desired location.

The cup vessel was selected from a variety of materials including animal horns, bamboo, brass, and glass is now the preferred material. At the end of the 20th century, another method of suction was employed where a valve was constructed at the top of the cup and a small hand operated pump is attached so that the practitioner could suck air out without relying of fire. Plastic or rubber cups are often used with these modern techniques.

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.