Cupping: China’s Massage

Cupping (拔罐, báguànr)

Cupping: China's Massage Chong'an Market Guizhou

Cupping: China’s Massage: A few years ago, when we were travelling through remote –and not so remote – parts of China, it was still quite common to see masseurs, practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine and even dentists plying their trade by the roadside, often surrounding by a crowd of curious onlookers.

Cupping: China's Massage Chong'an Market Guizhou

One of the sights that most caught our eye was that of people with their backs and shoulders bristling with bloody-looking little cups, like some strange kind of porcupines. The treatment looked scary and painful and we couldn’t really see the point of it.

Cupping: China’s Massage: What is Cupping?

Cupping: China's MassageTool Kit
Cupping Equipment https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Cupping_set%2C_London%2C_England_Wellcome_L0057395.jpg

We later learnt that these people were being treated with cupping, an ancient practice common in Chinese traditional medicine. It consists in putting special cups on the skin for a few minutes to generate suction and draw the blood to the surface of the skin. Apparently, the first cups were made of bullhorns that had been smoothed and perforated with tiny holes. Nowadays most cups are made of glass, though they can also be made of other materials, such as bamboo, pottery or silicone.

Cupping: China's Massage Cups
Cupping Cups: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9b/Cupping_glasses._Wellcome_L0007482.jpg

Basically, it seems that there are two main types of cupping: dry and wet.

Cupping: China’s Massage: Dry Cupping

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cuppin in Guiyang Central Market 2003

In dry cupping, the air inside the cup is first heated to burn up the oxygen. The cup is then quickly placed upside down on the skin. Once the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum, so that the ‘patient’s’ skin is sucked up into the cup. This pulling and stretching of the soft tissues draws blood to the area, makes the blood vessels expand and is supposed to stimulate a healing process. The cups are usually left in place for about 3 minutes. Cups can be used individually, or in large quantities to cover an extended area of skin.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Cupping: China’s Massage: Wet Cupping

The second type, wet cupping, takes the treatment a step further. Once the cup has been in place for 3-5 minutes, small cuts are made to the raised skin in order to allow the release of toxic blood and / or fluids. Pressure may be applied to speed up the process, and another cup is placed on the same area to draw out the liquids.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Alternatively, the cups can be moved slowly across lubricated skin, or they can be placed over an acupuncture needle; if fact, cupping is often combined with acupuncture in one treatment.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

Cupping: China’s Massage: What are the benefits?

The main benefit of cupping is increased blood circulation, which is said to speed up the healing process in people suffering from muscle fatigue and injuries. This is why many athletes have started using cupping, for example to loosen muscle knots and to help their bodies recover more quickly after competitions. Perhaps one of the most famous athletes to sport the telltale cupping marks was the swimmer Michael Phelps, who was seen with them at the Rio Olympics.

Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003
Cupping in Guiyang Central Market 2003

In Chinese traditional medicine, cupping is commonly used to alleviate pain in the back, hips, shoulders and neck, for rheumatism and certain respiratory problems, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, chest congestion and even the common cold. This list is by no means exhaustive; some practitioners even apply cupping to patients with fertility issues.

Are there any drawbacks?

However, according to Western medicine, there is no scientific evidence to support claims that cupping has health benefits and many critics of alternative medicine have spoken out against the practice, calling it a pseudoscience and even potentially dangerous, e.g. for people with high blood pressure or heart problems.

Cupping treatments are usually not painful, but they do tend to leave unsightly, reddish circular marks, or even deeper bruises on the body. In extreme cases, persistent skin discoloration, scars, burns, or infections may occur.  Incidentally, the presence of cupping marks on children has sometimes been mistaken for a sign of ill-treatment.

Author: Adam

My name is Adam. I have a degree in Chinese History from SOAS and a masters in International Politics focused on China from the same university. I have travelled around China 9 times and since 2000 I have travelled every year for two months. I guess I kind of like the place!

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