Cupping is a practice used almost globally in which a flame is used to produce a vacuum in a cupping vessel, which is then applied to the skin. ‘Dry’ cupping uses only the heated cup, while ‘wet’ cupping is a form of blood letting, in which the skin is scarified and blood drawn from the wound by suction. Cupping is mentioned in Hippocrates’s works, and was thought to draw excessive humours to the surface of the body.
Cupping was also used in Chinese, Native American, Egyptian and Islamic medicine. Depending on where in the world they were being used, cups could be made from buffalo horn, glass, bronze or tin. In Europe, cupping was often performed by female lay practitioners. From the 1500s to the late 1800s it was also offered by attendants at public baths. In this tradition cupping was used for a wide range of conditions including chest pains, indigestion, muscular problems and colds and flu.
Within the Chinese medical tradition, cupping was described as early as 281 CE. Originally, hollowed animal horns were used to drain toxins from the body. Over time these were replaced by bamboo and glass cups. By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-907), cupping was one of the main treatments for tuberculosis. Cupping remains a standard part of TCM practice. It is sometimes used together with acupuncture or moxibustion. Cupping aims to aid the circulation of stagnant qi energy and remove toxins from the body.
Cupping can be found practised in most Southeast Asian traditions, and has recently had a resurgence of popularity in other parts of the world.
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B Jackson, ‘History repeating: the resurgence of cupping as a therapeutic measure’, The Pharmaceutical Journal, 273/7308 (July 2004), p88
S Kuriyama, ‘Interpreting the history of bloodletting’, The Journal Of The History Of Medicine And Allied Sciences, 50 (1995), pp 11-46
S Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, (New York, Zone Books, 1999)
R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: HarperCollins, 1997)