A TCM technician uses plastic cups and a suction device to draw the air out of the cups at the Joyful Bliss Massage Center. (Debra Bruno)

— Not long after I moved to China, I learned I had a case of blocked qi. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine squeezed the top of my ear and informed me that the obstruction of my qi, or life force, was caused in part by my tendency to overthink. She also said I had some liver stagnation and a weak heart. Until that moment, I had thought I was just fine.

The practitioner suggested I try a remedy called cupping. I’d never heard of it before I moved to Beijing, though I had seen markings of it on others here: bright red circles across bare shoulders and backs that look like painful tattoos or hickeys. (Several years ago Gwyneth Paltrow caused a stir when the cut of her evening gown revealed a row of cupping marks all across her back.)

Though cupping, a form of acupuncture, has become something of a fad in Hollywood, it is only slowly catching on among the general public in the West. The aversion is understandable: Cupping involves the suctioning of flesh using warm cups that typically have been heated using a flaming stick. The heat inside the cup creates a vacuum that pulls the skin up a good inch or so in an effort to stimulate circulation, draw out toxins and stimulate the lymphatic system. The procedure is generally done on the back but can also be performed on the neck, legs and hips.

Some clinics opt for plastic cups, and some use oil to move the hot cups up and down the skin. There’s also “wet cupping,” or bleeding, in which a needle is inserted into the flesh before a cup is used to suction out blood from the spot that was pricked.

A dozen or more cups can be used, and the patient rests between five and 20 minutes while the skin inside the cups reddens. The redder the skin, the more proof that harmful toxins needed to be released, say practitioners. The marks disappear in a few days.

An alternative to needles

Cupping is a relatively benign process, although a singer in Taiwan was reportedly burned last year when a therapist accidentally spilled alcohol on his body and the alcohol was ignited by a flaming stick intended to warm a cup.

In the United States, there is no requirement for licensing of cupping therapists, and cupping products are available on Amazon.com. In Asia, patients use it both as a home remedy and as part of traditional Chinese medicine treatment in clinics. In the United States, an hour-long session with a therapist costs about $55, according to Jesse Mac-
Lean, director of education for the International Cupping Therapy Association, which is based outside Seattle. (A traditional acupuncture session generally ranges from $70 to $120.)

Lixing Lao, director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Research Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore, said that once his patients learn about cupping, they prefer it to the needles of traditional acupuncture. MacLean said that while it’s difficult to track cupping’s popularity in the United States, her group has seen a “sizable increase in the last few years” of inquiries from both health-care practitioners and consumers wanting to learn more about the procedure.

Many uses, little science

Lao says he has seen many patients who have “improved or recovered after cupping treatment.” The technique, he says, is especially “useful for muscular-skeletal pain” affecting the back, neck, shoulders and hips. “It can be also used for internal disorders, such as stomachache, vomiting, diarrhea, asthma or cough,” he says.

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.