Cupping therapy: no pain and no noticeable gain

During the hottest part of summer, temperatures in Beijing regularly soar above 95 F (35 C). To cope with the heat, women shed pants and long-sleeved shirts for tank tops and skirts, while the less fashion-conscious men simply roll up their shirts, exposing their midriff, however rotund.

The Beijing summer look for men that never goes out of style.

The summer look for men in Beijing that never goes out of style.

A few summers ago, one of the these bare-bellied men walked past me on the street. As I turned to look at him, I noticed a series of purple and pink bruises on his back, each about the size of a baseball. At first glance, it looked like he had been the victim of a brutal assault. But each of the bruises was the same size, and perfectly circular.

I told one of my friends what I had seen, and she said the bruises were from cupping, a form of traditional Chinese medicine commonly used in Asia and the Middle East. In China, cupping is known as baguan, and is used to alleviate everything from headaches to back pain.

I’ll never try that, I thought, after picturing a dozen or so tiny cups stuck to my body, tugging at my skin.

However, living in China has a way of changing your mindset. After a couple of years, riding in a car without wearing a seat belt doesn’t seem so dangerous because everybody does it. And letting a school of tiny fish chew the dead skin off the bottom of your feet sounds like a completely reasonable way to wind down after a long week.

So, a few weeks ago I went for my first cupping treatment. I had a runny nose and sore throat, and the woman who ran the neighborhood massage business said the cups would help cure my cold by removing the toxins from my body.

As I lay on a bed, a woman wheeled in a tray with around 20 glass cups, and asked me to turn on my stomach. One by one, she applied alcohol to the inside of the cups, lit the flammable liquid with a match and stuck them to my back.

The cups made a “popping” sound as they made contact with my body, and began pulling my skin up. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel the pressure increase the longer she left them on there. I zoned out, and after what seemed like 10 to 15 minutes she removed them from my back.

I took this picture about an hour after the cupping treatment.

I took this picture about an hour after the cupping treatment.

Did it a make a difference? Not that I could tell. My cold only got worse, but that was more my fault, for not resting enough, than the cupping.

The experts are also undecided. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there haven’t been enough quality clinical trials conducted on cupping, and “more rigorous studies are required” to determine its effectiveness in treating pain.

Regardless of whether cupping works, I’m open to trying it again. But no matter how hot it gets, I’m keeping my shirt pulled down. 

8 thoughts on “Cupping therapy: no pain and no noticeable gain

  1. not only is cupping done only in china, but also in the philippines and in indonesia… as far as i have experienced in indonesia, we do not use fire but a suction pump with modified glass cups to connect with the pump… i get this as a regular part of my massage in indonesia… others would drive out the air from the glass cups by holding lit paper or cotton swabs under the cups for a few seconds before placing it on the skin…

  2. Yes it’s promoted as a cure for just about everything. I did try it whilst I was there, simply because it seemed like something to do. I spent the time petrified the man was going to set fire to my hair, as he didn’t seem to be particularly careful. I noted there was a handy fire extinguisher in the corner of the room.

    • Yeah, it’s an odd look, especially when you a see a woman in a dress with bruises all over her back from cupping. I’ve become used to it, though, after living in Beijing for a few years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s