TCM Cupping Therapy

By Danielle Shones
Originally posted 2014

TCM Cupping TherapyTraditional Chinese Medicine is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism and dates back more than 2,500 years. TCM is better known for the use of herbs, acupuncture/moxibustion, massage therapy, TuiNa and Tai Chi to treat and even prevent illness.  Although Cupping is a lesser-known treatment it is a big part of Oriental Medicine.  Cupping is a term applied to a technique that uses small glass cups or bamboo jars as suction devices that are placed on the skin. Once suction has been established, the cups either sit stationary over a particular point, such as the Shu Points, along the back or may be gently glided along the skin. The suction of the cups causes the skin and superficial muscle layer to be lightly drawn upward. Cupping is much like the inverse of massage, rather than applying pressure to a muscle, it uses gentle suction to pull the muscle and surrounding tissue upward. Generally, cupping is combined with acupuncture in one treatment, but it can also be used alone. The suction and negative pressure provided by cupping can encourage blood flow and promote healing. In addition it will help break adhesions between the skin and underlying connective tissue, allowing for freer moving joints and looser muscles.

Archaeologists have found evidence of cupping therapy being practiced from as early as 1000 B.C. and not just in China. Cupping Therapy developed all through the Middle East and Egypt and even Japan. Of course the history of Chinese cupping is a long history of healing and innovation. It was an ancient Taoist medical practice widely used in the courts of Imperial China. This ancient method proved to be effective against common disorders associated with the pulmonary system. The Chinese expanded the use of cupping technique to surgery, this was called wet cupping. Other ancient cultures including the Egyptians and early Greeks also embraced the therapeutic uses of cupping. Even Hippocrates, known as the father of modern medicine, used cupping for internal diseases and structural problems. Cupping techniques soon spread through the medicine world, throughout Asian and European civilizations.  Each country used their own name for cupping and had their own unique methods. Ge Hong was a practicing Taoist, an alchemist, and a medicinal herbalist.  He was the first to introduce cupping to Imperial China, as stated in the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. Ge Hong along with other medicine men used animal horns for cupping. To this day in some medical articles of the empire, cupping is referred to as the horn technique of healing. This has led researchers to believe that cupping was indeed a Chinese invention and its practice is older than recorded in history. These ancient cups were mostly used to draw out pus and blood in the treatment of boils but as TCM evolved, cupping evolved with it. Other styles of cups were made out of sections of bamboo, pottery and eventually glass. Today, most acupuncturists use cups made of thick glass or plastic, although bamboo, horn and pottery cups are still used in some countries. Glass cups are the preferred methods of delivery, because they don’t break easily such as pottery or deteriorate like bamboo, and they have the added benefit of allowing the practitioner to see the skin during treatment.

There are several different techniques in using the cupping therapy. The most traditional method and probably best known is fire cupping – A small cotton ball is lightly coated with alcohol. The cotton ball is then ignited and inserted inside the cup which will evacuate the air.  Once all the oxygen is burned up the cotton ball burns out and suction is formed inside the cup against the skin. Air cupping or handpump method – similar to fire cupping except no flame is needed instead the cups are equipped with a nipple that a pump can easily attach to and the suction is created via pumping the air out of the cup. Lastly there is the method of moist or wet cupping – this is the oldest and according to most literature the most effective method. The skin is punctured before treatment. When the cup is applied and the skin is drown up, a small amount of blood may flow from the puncture site, this is believed to help remove harmful substances and toxins from the body. Once the suction is established there are several techniques that can be done with the cups. Herbal cupping consists of applying the appropriate herbal tincture to the inside of the glass, and then the glass cup is applied to the skin with the appropriate amount of suction. With stationary cupping the cups are applied to the skin and then left in the same spot for up to 15mins. Massage or gliding cups are slightly different. This is done by applying oil to the skin first, inducing only a small suction inside the cup and then gently lifting the cup and gliding it across the skin but still maintaining the vacuum effect. With Momentary cupping the cups are “popped” on and off the skin rapidly, this is most easily accomplished with the handpump system.  Hot cupping is done with Moxa, also known as mugwort. Acupuncture needles are warmed with smoldering dried mugwort, and then applied to the appropriate area with the cup creating a vacuum effect around the needle.

In 2008 the British Cupping Society (BCS) was established by a group of medical professionals and cupping therapy experts. The BCS was the first society to conduct a scientific investigation into the effects of cupping therapy and continue to promote the benefits of cupping today. According to the British Cupping Society & WebMD cupping therapy can be used to treat:

  • Blood disorders such as anemia & hemophilia
  • Rheumatic diseases such as arthritis & fibromyalgia
  • Fertility and gynecological disorders
  • Skin problems such as eczema & acne
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Migraines
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Bronchial congestion caused by allergies or asthma
  • Varicose veins

While cupping is considered reasonably safe especially air cupping, which does not include the risks involved with fire. There are still things to consider before using cupping therapy. Patients with inflamed skin, cases of high fever or patients who bleed easily are not suitable candidates for cupping. In addition pregnant women should not have cupping on their stomach or lower back. And if you are moving the cup along someone’s skin it should not cross any bony areas such as the ridges of the spine or the shoulder blades. The bruises that appear are a result of the skin being drawn up into the cup where the blood vessels at the surface of the skin expand; leaving circular marks anywhere a cup was applied. These bruises however are usually painless and disappear within a few days of the treatment. Leaving the clients body feeling looser, detoxed and well on their way to healing.


  1. National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):
  2. Academy of classical Oriental Sciences-History of Chinese Medicine Cupping:
  3. Acupuncture Today – Cupping
  4. WebMD – Cupping Therapy:
  5. British Cupping Society: