There is an interesting treatment technique in Traditional Chinese Medicine known as cupping. It’s not used a lot in the West and not well known here in the States. A few years ago Gwyneth Paltrow showed up in public sporting the distinctive circular marks the technique leaves on the skin, but I haven’t seen much reference to it lately.
Cupping uses a vessel to create a vacuum as it is pressed to the skin, stretching the tissues and creating enhanced circulation in the area treated. These days, many practitioners use a glass “cup” which actually looks more like a miniature fish bowl. A vacuum is created by quickly flashing an open flame inside the cup, just before it is placed on the skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it reduces in volume. A modern variation makes use of plastic cups with built in check-valves. A hand pump is then used to suck out some air and create the vacuum. I find the glass cups to be more comfortable for the patient, especially if they will be used in a moving fashion to cover a large area. The plastic versions are superior for getting a strong suction in a very small cup, which can be ideal for working on small bony areas, such as an elbow or knee.
I find cupping therapy useful for a number of soft tissue problems, such as chronically tight muscles (especially on the back) and tendinitis (for example, with tennis elbow). I have used it on a couple of patients with back muscles so tight and sensitive they would actually spasm further when acupuncture needles were inserted. After a cupping treatment or two, I could use acupuncture normally. Cupping is sometimes superior to needling when a large area of muscle is involved, and in chronic conditions.
Traditionally, cupping is also used to stimulate almost any acupuncture point, similar to the way we might use needles. In other words, it can be used for internal medicine treatments, as well as musculoskeletal problems.
I don’t do this often, but find it a very helpful treatment for chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma (in which case I treat points on the back of the neck and upper back). An ancient Chinese treatment for asthma was to use a small caustic poultice, including herbs like mustard seed, with the intent of creating a blister on the skin. Cupping is a much gentler way to achieve a similarly strong, long-lasting stimulation of a point.
Cupping is usually done with the expectation of causing some bruising. This comes from the suction that is created, rather than blunt trauma – most people find the sensation of cupping to be comfortable or even enjoyable. It seems to be the weak capillaries that break; as the tissue gets healthier, bruising is much reduced or eliminated. Cupping causes a strong stimulation at the time of the treatment. Afterward, the stimulation continues, as the body flushes out the affected tissue and then builds new, healthier blood vessels. The result is a relatively strong and long lasting treatment, whether the intended target was specific acupuncture points or entire muscle groups.
Braxton Ponder is a Licensed Acupuncturist whose work has taken him around the world, exposing him to a broad range of healthcare systems and practices. He draws upon this background, as well as his ongoing clinical experience, when he offers news analysis and commentary about health care.
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