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Cupping

Other common name(s): cupping, fire cupping, body vacuuming, the horn method

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

Cupping involves warming the air inside a glass, metal, or wooden cup and inverting it over a part of the body to treat various health conditions.

Overview

Cupping is based on traditional Chinese medicine. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that cupping has any health benefits.

How is it promoted for use?

Cupping is a practice of Chinese medicine recommended mainly for treating bronchial congestion, arthritis, and pain. It is also promoted to ease depression and reduce swelling.

Cupping is supposed to realign and balance the flow of one's vital energy or life force called qi or ch'i, pronounced "kee" or "chee." In the presence of illness or injury, proponents say, the qi is disturbed and there may be too much or too little at certain points in the body. The practitioner diagnoses any imbalances in the qi and attempts to restore them. Although not widely used as an alternative method of treatment for cancer, some practitioners may use it to rebalance energy in the body that has been blocked by tumors.

What does it involve?

A flammable substance, such as alcohol, herbs, or paper is placed in a cup made of glass, metal, wood, or bamboo. The material inside the cup is set on fire. As the fire goes out, the cup is placed upside down over qi pathways, places on the body that according to traditional Chinese medicine, are linked to the patient's illness. It is usually left in place 5 to 10 minutes.

As the air inside the jar cools, it creates a vacuum, which causes the skin to rise. This is thought to open up the skin's pores and create a route for toxins to escape the body. The skin under the cup reddens as blood vessels expand. In a more modern version of cupping, a rubber pump attached to the jar is used to create the vacuum.

In "wet" cupping, the skin is punctured before treatment. When the cup is applied, blood flows out of the punctures and is said to remove harmful substances and toxins from the body. In "dry" cupping, the skin is left intact. Some practitioners sterilize the cups in an autoclave, a device that uses steam under pressure to sterilize medical instruments by heating the cups to more than 250º F.

What is the history behind it?

Cupping is an ancient component of Chinese medicine. It is also a well-known folk remedy in Vietnam and other Asian countries. Besides "fire" cupping, other methods include acupuncture cupping, water cupping, and air-pump cupping.

What is the evidence?

Available scientific evidence does not support cupping as a cure for cancer or any other disease. Reports of successful treatment with cupping are mainly anecdotal rather than from research studies.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Cupping is considered relatively safe. However, the treatment may be slightly painful or even cause burns. Cupping leaves purplish marks on the skin, which usually heal after several days. It can also cause swelling due to the buildup of excess fluid around the cupped area.

Relying on this treatment alone and delaying or avoiding conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co; 1998.

Raso J. Dictionary of metaphysical healthcare: Unnaturalistic Methods. Accessed at www.quackwatch.org on May 30, 2008.

Sagi A, Ben-Meir P, Bibi C. Burn hazard from cupping--an ancient universal medication still in practice. Burns Incl Therm Inj. 1988;14:323-325.

Tierra L. Barefoot Doctor Healing Techniques Accessed at www.planetherbs.com/articles/barefoot.html on May 30, 2008.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008