Traditional Chinese Medicine: My Experience With Cupping

traditional Chinese medicine - cupping

I did another photo shoot with Joanna Rees at the Taipei City Hospital this week. This month, one of Joanna’s photography assignments with Discover Taipei magazine required her to take photos of the ancient Chinese medical practices of cupping and gua sha (otherwise known as cupping).

In other words, I got a taste of Traditional Chinese Medicine!

When Jo asked me to be the model for her photo shoot, I balked initially and then thought, “Why not?”

I wanted to give it a try when I was in China, but I never had a good excuse. Jo’s offer seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Part of the joy of living abroad is trying new things and challenging yourself with activities you might not necessarily do back home. I knew there would be some bruising because my overall health is not good, but I also know this method of massage therapy is gaining momentum back home in North America, partly due to celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.

She sported her own tell-tale bruises at a New York film premier earlier this year.

Joanna and I met with Dr. Tzu Ying Lai at the hospital early Wednesday morning for a lesson in the different methods of cupping. I was a little nervous, but Joanna always takes charge quickly. Within minutes, she had the room set up the way she liked it and we were on our way.

I found myself draped over the back of a chair with the doctor hovering over me with funny looking cup and gun. I nervously started talking while she puttered around with cups on my back. She explained a good deal in the short amount of time we were there.

What is cupping?

Cupping is used to bring blood flow to the muscles and skin, which effectively drain excess fluid and toxins from deep connective tissues. It’s used to relieve pain and back stiffness.

Cupping is often used on adults and children for relieving cold, cough and asthmatic conditions. Dr. Tzu stressed several times that cupping opens up the meridians in the back, which stimulate the flow of blood and Qi.

Plastic cups are used with a manual pump to create a vacuum inside the cup which sucks the skin up into the cup. Whenever the cup loosened, Dr. Tzu would give it a blast with the pump and it would tighten everything up again. It was a little uncomfortable for awhile and then I got used to it.

Next, Dr. Tzu demonstrated with glass cups. These look like little clear fishbowls. They come in different sizes and are used with heat. A cotton ball is soaked with alcohol. The cotton is ignited and placed in the open end of the cup to create a vaccuum, which sucks all the air out of the cup. The cup is then placed over the affected area. Dr. Tzu pressed down on the outer edge of the cup and my skin to remove each cup.

I found it interesting to learn that home cupping is becoming more and more popular in Taiwan. Dr. Tzu told us plastic set of cups with a pump that can be purchased at local pharmacies.

People are buying their own sets and practicing at home. People come to Dr. Tzu at the hospital to take ‘cupping classes.’

There are two main techniques for cupping:

Stationary cups are placed on the skin and left for five to fifteen minutes. Dr. Tzu feels this method is especially useful when treating coughs and colds. It is thought cupping brings the infection to the surface. When your skin turns red this means the blood has been brought to the surface, along with all the nasty toxins and infection that makes you sick.

Moving ‘massage’ cups require a heavy dose of oil or a menthol balm to facilitate smooth and even strokes. Despite the oil, I found this method much more painful than the stationary cups. I could hardly bare it for more than a few seconds before I asked Dr. Tzu to stop.

All in all, I found my first cupping experience interesting.

It didn’t work for my health issues, though, and I wouldn’t do it again.

I’ve learned there is a lot to be said about traditional Chinese medical practices in China and Taiwan, but my overall conclusion after multiple visits to different TCM doctors in China and Taiwan is that this does not work for Ankylosing Spondylitis and Fibromyalgia.

For another inside look into the world of cupping, check out Jan Shim’s blog, Shimworld. Jan writes about his own personal experience with cupping and features some rather interesting self-portraits of his body after a cupping session. I’m glad I didn’t find his blog until after my appointment.

Post Author: Carrie Kellenberger

I'm a chronically ill Canadian expat who has been living abroad in Asia since 2003. I moved from China to Taiwan in 2006. My husband and I have owned our own business in Taiwan since 2012. In addition to my own work, I've been writing professionally about Asia, travel and health advocacy since 2007, providing regular content to several publishing companies and travel publications in Asia and North America. Follow Carrie on on Twitter @globetrotteri or on Instagram at

8 thoughts on “Traditional Chinese Medicine: My Experience With Cupping


    (August 26, 2007 - 11:51 pm)

    I’d try massages, but not cupping. Surprisingly, I got a back massage before getting my haircut last week. I was pretty surprised, but it was hard and relaxing at the same time.

    Customs are different in the East.


    (August 27, 2007 - 10:52 pm)

    This is a great article on cupping Carrie. You are an excellent journalist. Moreover, I don’t know how you managed to remember all of Dr. Tzu’s words while undergoing the cupping and scrapping treatments. Wowsers!


    (August 27, 2007 - 11:23 pm)

    I think I was concentrating more on Dr. Tzu and the camera and less on the actual procedure.

    Besides, I can add this one to our list. We’ve tried massage techniques in every country we’ve been to. Thai, Lao and Balinese massages are terrific. Khmer massages are also pretty good. I didn’t enjoy any massage work in China and I haven’t really enjoyed it in Taiwan to date.


    (March 31, 2008 - 1:51 am)

    NO PAIN NO GAIN as my wife and I are used to this adage. We frequent a popular place in Brunei called The Healing Touch that employs masseurs from China and they offer services from traditional massages in VARYING degree of PAIN, foot reflexology and cupping therapy. In the beginning, a period of discovering which masseuse suited her, she was left disappointed how little pain she felt mainly due to the mainland Chinese masseuse being too gentle. She now requests for one known for her unforgiving efforts! 🙂

    It’s the same for me, the massage alone can be EXTREMELY painful but fortunately both of us have a high threshold for pain and not the kind that screams and moans at every twitch of the skin. The pain from cupping can also be overwhelming at times but it’s pleasurable afterwards. The only downside to this is that the “need for a massage” can be addictive and how ironic and a appropriate to add that to the trappings of modern living.


    (April 1, 2013 - 5:11 am)

    Hi! I am going to Taiwan and I would really like to try this out and speak with Dr. Tzu !!! Can you give me more information about how to reach him or the hospital, I see there are several different chapters…

    Thank you so much!


      (April 2, 2013 - 10:42 am)

      I really wish I had more information for you, Brianna. All I know is that these photos were taken at Taipei City Hospital at their Linsen branch.


    (February 1, 2017 - 8:06 am)

    I know this is a really old thread but I have cupping done all the time in conjuncture with acupuncture. It is very relaxing to me and the only time is has been painful is if I have a very tight muscle and they will massage with the cups over the tight muscle and that can be a bit painful but relaxing at the same time. It is said that 5 minutes of cupping is equal to 45 minutes of myofascial massage and I would much rather have the cups because the myofascial massage is PAINFUL, which is how I think skin scrapping would feel. OUCH! Anyways, just wanted to throw that in that cupping is extremely helpful, not painful and very good for the body.

      Carrie Kellenberger

      (March 18, 2017 - 1:26 pm)

      Hi Jamie. I’ve had all three. Scraping was extremely painful, myofascial massage was also pretty painful and cupping was the least painful of all, but none of these treatments were effective for what I have.

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