History of Cupping as a Medical Device

Cupping set, London, England, 1860-1875 Cupping was a method of bloodletting, a practice once carried out to treat a wide range of diseases and medical conditions. Warm glass cups were placed on the skin to draw blood believed to be harmful to health to the surface of the skin. In wet cupping, the blood was released from the body using a lancet or scarificator (a set of spring-operated lancets). The set was made by S Maw & Son, a surgical instrument maker based in London. Medical Photographic Library.

 

Woman receiving fire cupping at a roadside business in Haikou, Hainan, China. Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

 

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), cupping is a method of creating a vacuum on the patient’s skin 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. 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 BCE. The Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BCE 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 BCE) 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. 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 CE.). Cupping was also mentioned in Maimonides’ book on health and was used within the Eastern European Jewish community. There is a description of cupping in George Orwell’s essay “How the Poor Die“, where he was surprised to find it practiced in a Paris hospital.

 

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. Brad McKay,MD, 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. Practicing surgeon David Gorski claims, it’s all risk for no benefit. It has no place in modern medicine. Critics of alternative medicine such as Harriet Hall, Mark Crislip, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst have characterized cupping as pseudoscience nonsense, a celebrity fad, and gibberish. They’ve stated that there is no evidence that cupping works any better than a placebo. Pharmacologist David Colquhoun writes that cupping is laughable and utterly implausible. Sources: Wikipedia; WebMD

 

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