Indeed, cupping has been said to help with an array of ailments from infertility, pain and colds to constipation, insomnia and drug addiction. Some practitioners also claim that it prevents disease.
Still, there is little if any solid evidence showing the health effects of cupping. A 2010 study funded by the National Basic Research Program of China and the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, looked at 550 clinical studies between 1959 and 2008, mainly in China. This review found that although cupping showed “potential benefits” for pain, herpes zoster (shingles) and other diseases, more and better studies were needed. On its Web site, the American Cancer Society says there is no “available scientific evidence” for the health benefits of cupping, and that reports of success with cupping “are mainly anecdotal.”
‘They love it’
For Westerners coming to China, traditional healing techniques such as cupping have become something of a tourist attraction. Some tours mix standard stops at the Forbidden City and the Great Wall with morning lectures on traditional Chinese medicine and visits to clinics. David Zhang, general manager of the Joyful Bliss Massage Center in Beijing, said that once he explains cupping to Westerners, they are less apprehensive. “Then they experience it,” he said, “and they love it.”
Could I be one of those people? I decided to find out at the Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine Health Preservation Research Center, an institution that looks more spalike than medical. I began with a tuina massage, which is more of a pressing and a pressure-point kneading than an oily, clothes-off process. And yet it ended up feeling pretty good. It lasted an hour, and I nearly fell asleep.
Afterward, I lay on my stomach and bared my back. Before I had a chance to get nervous, I felt a gentle pressure along my back, one after the other. Then the nurse put a warm blanket over the cups, and I half-dozed on the couch. Even though my skin had a tight feeling from being pulled up into the cups, it didn’t hurt.
After about 10 minutes, she pulled the cups off. I had 14 pink and red circles all over my back. I felt comfortable and relaxed, but I don’t know if that was from the massage or the cupping. By the end of the day, though, I felt dizzy, and my back felt lightly sunburned. A few days later, the marks had become more faint, and my skin a little itchy.
As for the effects, well, I haven’t lost the problem of overthinking. Whether my treatment prevented any future disease is something I may never know.
Bruno is a freelance writer in Beijing.