East Meets West: Finding the Harmony Between Traditional and Alternative Medicine

Have you ever seen someone with uniform, dark purple, bruise-like circles on their back or on the back of their neck? Although frightening at first glance, cupping is an ancient Chinese medicine practice that has been used in the Chinese culture for thousands of years to treat the ailments of athletes, the ill, and the injured.

History of cupping. Although the true origin of cupping is uncertain, the earliest recorded use was by a famous Chinese alchemist, herbalist, and medicine man named Ge Hong (281-341 A.D). Hong and other medicine men of the time believed that the body contains “Qi”, the energy of life. They worked to identify a way to mobilize blood flow in order to promote the flow of “Qi”, which is located primarily in the five major pathways.  He documented this in his written account of cupping, A Handbook of Prescriptions. In this book he recorded he was able to treat half of the ill and injured he encountered through the practices of cupping and acupuncture.

What is cupping? Along the five main pathways found on the back, cups are applied to the skin. The pressure in the cup is reduced, or “vacuumed”, either through suction or heat, in order to bring the skin and superficial muscles up towards the top of the cup. While the suction is active, the cup is slowly moved causing the skin and muscles to move along with the cup, providing an acupuncture-like therapy for the pathways in the body.

The process of cupping. Generally, glass cups are used for cupping therapy. These cups come with a top valve that attaches to a small vacuum pump. This pump allows the therapist to decrease the air pressure in the glass cup at the beginning of the process. In addition to the cups, oil is used to allow the cups to move smoothly on the back. The oils used are generally infused with medicinal herb extracts that provide a heat sensation when the cups are moved during the therapy session.

Cups are left in place for about ten to fifteen minutes, allowing the skin to redden in a circular shape due to the pulling of the skin and superficial muscles, breakage of capillary soft tissue, and accumulation of blood that occur in the skin inside the depressurized cups during the process. The circular shapes that appear after the cupping session can range from light red to dark purple and can last anywhere between three days to a week, depending on the patient’s condition and the cupping session provided.

How does cupping help? Cupping is known for increasing “Qi”, the overall blood flow in the body, and is also commonly used for muscle aches and pains, particularly of the back. However, it is also used to treat coughs, asthma, and common cold-like symptoms. Many people undergo cupping therapy because it helps to release toxins, activate the lymphatic system, increase blood flow, clear stretch marks, and, in some cases, help to clear veins.

It is believed the circular marks that appear after a typical cupping session are an indication that the disease or affliction has been moved from the deeper layers of the tissue to the surface. The moving of the toxins, dead or static blood, and other waste products towards the surface allows the newly oxygenated blood to heal the underlying areas, that have been preciously infected with disease or injury.

How cupping has helped my family. Being of Chinese decent, cupping has been used at home for many generations. This is not to say my family is not both supportive and well versed in Western medicine (my mother works as an ICU Registered Nurse in a local hospital), but we believe that the use of Chinese medicine, such as cupping, is an effective alternative or complement to modern medicine for everyday health, wellness, and recovery.

My family uses Chinese medicine and therapies, such as cupping when muscle pains or cold-like symptoms appear. When a family member falls ill cupping is performed as a supplement to Western medicine in order to provide comfort and to help speed up the recovery process. My mother, who suffered a rotator-cuff injury two years ago, underwent surgery and used cupping soon afterward. It allowed her muscles to relax and helped increase the blood flow present in her body, providing her comfort during her surgical recovery.

Samantha Yin is a Chinese American from Temple City, CA. She is currently pre-med  studying Nutritional Science with an emphasis in Physiology and Metabolism at the University of California Berkeley.


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