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The first known mention of the ancient Chinese practice of cupping is in The Handbook of Prescriptions, an early fourth-century text written by the herbalist Ge Hong. It appears to have become particularly popular during the Qing and Tang dynasties with herbalist manuals from this era describing the practice in great detail and noting especially the beneficial effects of what translates as fire jar qi for alleviating headaches, abdominal pain and dizziness.
The first practitioners hollowed-out animal’s horns to make cups that were then heated and placed upside down on the patient’s body to create a vacuum over the desired meridian or acupoint (the points where different circuits of qi – vital life energy – intersect).
Here in Toronto in the 21st century, we use plastic or thick glass for the same purpose though traditional iron, pottery and bamboo cups are still in use elsewhere in the world.
As our Best of Chinese Medicine clinic, we prefer to use glass so that we can see the effects of the vacuum on the skin beneath and so can monitor more easily how the treatment is progressing.
What happens during cupping and what can it treat?
We think that cupping works in much the same way as acupuncture by stimulating the blood flow in and around the meridians or acupoints to remove blockages that are preventing qi (vital life energy) from flowing smoothly around the body.
At Best of Chinese Medicine, we heat our thick glass cups by burning a wad of alcohol-soaked cotton wool inside. Once the cup is sufficiently warmed we take out the cotton and invert the cup over the desired area to be treated. The burning of the cotton wool removes all oxygen which creates a vacuum inside the cup so that when it is inverted and placed on the body it draws up the skin and flesh beneath as it cools.
The cup is left in place for 5-10 minutes, during which time it exerts a gentle pressure on the meridian, opens the pores, stimulates the blood’s circulation, breaks down obstructions, allows toxins to flow out of the acupoint and in this way realigns and balances the healthy flow of qi.
Cupping is generally used on the fleshier areas of the body such as the stomach, back, and occasionally legs and arms. The exact number of cups used and the amount of time they are left in place depends on the condition being treated.
We may also decide to apply herbal and/or medicated oils to the treatment area just before applying the cups. This allows us to slide the cups along the body keeping the vacuum intact but varying the amount of pressure that is exerted on the acupoints, which can further aid in breaking down and removing qi blockages.
Cupping is primarily used in China as a treatment for congestion, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders, some types of pain, and gastroenteritis and other abdominal conditions. It can also help to reduce swelling and alleviate depression.
What to expect from a cupping session. Watch this video as a reference
Are there other types of cupping?
The type of cupping described above is sometimes referred to as dry cupping, to distinguish it from wet or air cupping methods. In air cupping, the cup is inverted on the skin and a suction pump is attached to remove the air, which creates the vacuum. In wet cupping, acupuncture needles are first applied to the acupoints or meridians and then removed, after which the cup is applied to the skin and the vacuum formed either by the air or the dry method. With wet cupping, the small puncture hole made by the acupuncture needle will bleed slightly which Chinese Medicine Practitioners believe is helpful in removing toxins and other harmful substances from the bodies so that qi (vital energy) can flow smoothly and freely.
How safe is cupping? Will I feel any pain?
When practiced by an experienced traditional Chinese medicine specialist, cupping is extremely safe, particularly air cupping which involves neither heat nor needles.
The only side effects may be some slight circular bruising and/or swelling afterwards which is caused by the drawing up of tiny blood vessels into the vacuum, but this quickly goes down within a day or so of treatment and is not usually painful.
However, cupping is not suitable for every person and people who suffer from convulsions, inflamed skin or who have high fever or bleed easily should not undergo cupping. Pregnant women should avoid cupping on the lower back and stomach. In addition, an experienced practitioner will not usually move cups over bony parts of the body such as the shoulder blades or along spinal bumps.
What is so special about mugwort?
Mugwort, (or Ai Ye in Chinese or Artemisia Vulgarisin Latin) has historically been used as a natural folk remedy in the traditional medical practices of many countries.
Scientific studies show that it is an emmenagogue, which is the medical way of saying that it stimulates the blood to circulate in the uterus and pelvic area and so encourages menstruation.
It is believed that in a similar way it stimulates fetal movements which may be why many breech babies turn to the correct head down position for delivery when moxibustion is performed on their mothers prior to birth.
Is another ancient practice of acupuncture with a twist in which the small leaved, spongy mugwort herb is burned and its heat used to add stimulus to the various targeted acupoints (meridians) where circuits of vital life energy interconnect. Moxibustion is traditionally believed to further stimulate the flow of vital life energy (qi), strengthen the blood and facilitate its circulation, and add to the patient’s general sense of wellbeing and health.
In the past, moxibustion was used to treat patients who were believed to be suffering from stagnant or cold conditions. Tradition has it that the burning of the mugwort helps expel the cold and warms up the meridians letting qi and blood flow smoothly again. Western, scientific studies into the different ways to use moxibustion have shown that it is a very effective method of stimulating breech babies to turn prior to delivery so that they can be born in the normal head down position. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper which stated that three-quarters of women with breech baby presentations who receivedmoxibustion went on to experience normal head down deliveries.
Further investigations showed that moxibustion stimulates fetal movements and when combined with traditional acupuncture is also an excellent method for reducing the discomfort of menstrual cramps.
How exactly does moxibustion work? Will I feel pain?
In fact, moxibustion can be practiced both directly and indirectly.With direct moxibustion, the practitioner places a small, cone-shaped amount of dried mugwort herb (moxa) on to the chosen acupuncture meridianor acupoint and sets it alight. As the moxa burns down, you will feel a pleasant, warming sensation penetrating deep into the skin and acupoint. In Toronto, at the Best of Chinese Medicine clinic, we usually leave the cone in place until it is almost burned through and then remove it – this is called non-scarring moxibustion. Sometimes in China and some other parts of the world, the moxa cone is left in place until it is totally burned out, which causes local blistering and scarring after the blister heals. This is known as scarring moxibustion and is less commonly performed here in Toronto.
In fact, indirect moxibustion is the most popular and prevalent form of moxibustion performed in Canada because there is far less risk of any type of scarring, burning or pain. With indirect moxibustion, our traditional Chinese healers will light one end of a cigar shaped moxa stick and hold it close to the meridian, or acupuncture point being treated, until the skin become reddened. Alternatively, we will insert an acupuncture needle into the point being treated and then will wrap the other end in moxa and set it alight. The heat from the moxa passes down the needle into the meridian or acupoint and warms the desired area. When the point is sufficiently warmed the needle is removed and the moxa extinguished.