Cupping and bloodletting set, from London, England, dating from 1860–1875
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Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine. Cupping is used in more than 60 countries. Its usage dates back to as far as 1,550 B.C. There are different forms of cupping; the most common are dry, wet, and fire cupping. Cups are applied onto the skin and a suction is created, pulling the skin up. It is meant to increase blood flow to certain areas of the body. Not part of medical practice in modern era, cupping has been characterized as a pseudoscience. There is no good evidence it has any health benefits, and there are some risks of harm, especially in case of wet and fire cupping.
Cupping is poorly supported by scientific evidence, with a 2014 review of recent evidence finding that "because of the unreasonable design and poor research quality, the clinical evidence of cupping therapy is very low." A 2011 review found that "the effectiveness of cupping is currently not well-documented for most conditions", and that systematic reviews showing efficacy for the treatment of pain "were based mostly on poor quality primary studies." The American Cancer Society notes that "available scientific evidence does not support claims that cupping has any health benefits" and also that the treatment carries a small risk of burns.
In their 2008 book Trick or Treatment, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst write that no evidence exists of any beneficial effects of cupping for any medical condition. Critics of alternative medicine such as Harriet Hall and Mark Crislip have characterized cupping as "pseudoscience nonsense", "a celebrity fad", and "gibberish", and observed that there is no evidence that cupping works any better than a placebo. Pharmacologist David Colquhoun writes that cupping is "laughable... and utterly implausible." Practicing surgeon David Gorski observes, "...it’s all risk for no benefit. It has no place in modern medicine, or at least shouldn’t."
While details vary between practitioners, societies, and cultures, the practice consists of drawing tissue into a cap placed on the targeted area by creating a partial vacuum – either by the heating and subsequent cooling of the air in the cup, or via a mechanical pump. The cup is usually left in place for somewhere between five and fifteen minutes.
Cupping therapy types can be classified using four distinct methods of categorisation. The first system of categorisation relates to "technical types" including: dry, wet, massage, and flash cupping therapy. The second categorisation relates to "the power of suction related types" including: light, medium, and strong cupping therapy. The third categorisation relates to "the method of suction related types" including: fire, manual suction, and electrical suction cupping therapy. The fourth categorisation relates to "materials inside cups" including: herbal products, water, ozone, moxa, needle, and magnetic cupping therapy.
Further categories of cupping were developed later. The fifth relates to area treated including: facial, abdominal, female, male, and orthopedic cupping therapy. The sixth relates to "other cupping types" that include sports and aquatic cupping.
The cupping procedure commonly involves creating a small area of low air pressure next to the skin. However, there are varieties in the tools used, the methods of creating the low pressure, and the procedures followed during the treatment.
The cups can be of various shapes including balls or bells, and may range in size from 1 to 3 inches (25 to 76 mm) across the opening. Plastic and glass are the most common materials used today, replacing the horn, pottery, bronze and bamboo cups used in earlier times. The low air pressure required may be created by heating the cup or the air inside it with an open flame or a bath in hot scented oils, then placing it against the skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it contracts and draws the skin slightly inside. More recently, vacuum is created with a mechanical suction pump acting through a valve located at the top of the cup. Rubber cups are also available that squeeze the air out and adapt to uneven or bony surfaces.
In practice, cups are normally used only on softer tissue that can form a good seal with the edge of the cup. They may be used singly or with many to cover a larger area. They may be used by themselves or placed over an acupuncture needle. Skin may be lubricated, allowing the cup to move across the skin slowly.
Fire cupping involves soaking a cotton ball in almost pure alcohol. The cotton is clamped by a pair of forceps and lit via match or lighter, and, in one motion, placed into the cup and quickly removed, while the cup is placed on the skin. The fire uses up all the oxygen in the cup which creates a negative pressure inside the cup. The cup is then quickly placed onto the body and the negative pressure "sucks" the skin up. Massage oil may be applied to create a better seal as well as allow the cups to glide over muscle groups (e.g. trapezius, erectors, latissimus dorsi, etc.) in an act called "gliding cupping" or "sliding cupping". Dark circles may appear where the cups were placed because of capillary rupture just under the skin. There are documented cases of burns caused by fire cupping.
Wet cupping, unlike dry cupping, requires a skin incision. The skin incision can be made either before or after cupping treatment. The cup is meant to suck out any impurities in the body which may include blood, toxins, fragmented blood cells, and tissue fluid.
The first reported usages are found in the Islamic hadith, sayings attributed to or describing the actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith from Muhammad al-Bukhari, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj Nishapuri and Ahmad ibn Hanbal support its recommendation and use by Muhammad. As a result, wet cupping has remained a popular remedy practiced in many parts of the Muslim world.
In Finland, wet cupping has been done at least since the 15th century, and it is done traditionally in saunas. The cupping cups were made of cattle horns with a valve mechanism in it to create a partial vacuum by sucking the air out. Cupping is still practiced in Finland as part of relaxing and/or health regimens.
Traditional Chinese medicine
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), cupping is done to dispel stagnation (stagnant blood and lymph), thereby improving qi flow, in order to treat respiratory diseases such as the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis. Cupping also is used on back, neck, shoulder and other musculoskeletal conditions. Its advocates claim it has other applications as well. Cupping is not advised, in TCM, over skin ulcers or to the abdominal or sacral regions of pregnant women.
Society and culture
Cupping has gained publicity in modern times due to its use by American sport celebrities including National Football League player DeMarcus Ware and Olympians Alexander Naddour, Natalie Coughlin, and Michael Phelps. Medical doctor Brad McKay wrote that Team USA was doing a great disservice to their fans who might "follow their lead", calling cupping an "ancient (but useless) traditional therapy." Steven Novella noted "It is unfortunate that elite athletics, including the Olympics, is such a hot bed for pseudoscience."
The origin of cupping is unclear. For over 3,000 years, the practice has been typically performed unsupervised, by individuals without any medical background. Iranian traditional medicine uses wet-cupping practices, with the belief that cupping with scarification may eliminate scar tissue, and cupping without scarification would cleanse the body through the organs. Individuals with a profound interest in the practice are typically very religious and seek "purification."
There is reason to believe the practice dates from as early as 3000 BC. The Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BC and one of the oldest medical textbooks in the Western world, describes the Egyptians' use of cupping, while mentioning similar practices employed by Saharan peoples. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates (c. 400 BC) used cupping for internal disease and structural problems. The method was highly recommended by Muhammad and hence well-practiced by Muslim scientists who elaborated and developed the method further. Consecutively, this method in its multiple forms spread into medicine throughout Asian and European civilizations. In China, the earliest use of cupping that is recorded is from the famous Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong (281–341 A.D.). Cupping was also mentioned in Maimonides' book on health and was used within the Eastern European Jewish community.
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As I lay down I saw on a bed nearly opposite me a small, round-shouldered, sandy-haired man sitting half naked while a doctor and a student performed some strange operation on him. First the doctor produced from his black bag a dozen small glasses like wine glasses, then the student burned a match inside each glass to exhaust the air, then the glass was popped on to the man's back or chest and the vacuum drew up a huge yellow blister. Only after some moments did I realize what they were doing to him. It was something called cupping, a treatment which you can read about in old medical text-books but which till then I had vaguely thought of as one of those things they do to horses.
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