Traditional Chinese Medicine: My Experience With Cupping

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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.

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.

Medicine in Taiwan. Read my story at MySeveralWorlds.com.

What is cupping? Cupping is used to bring blood flow to the muscles and skin, which drains excess fluid and toxins from deep connective tissues. It's used to relieve pain and back stiffness.
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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 https://www.instagram.com/carriekellenberger/.

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

    range

    (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.

    jorees

    (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!

    globetrotteri

    (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.

    SHIMWORLD

    (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.

    brianna

    (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!

      Carrie

      (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.

    Jamie

    (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.

    Shruti Chopra

    (September 12, 2020 - 11:56 pm)

    How good that you decided to go for it!

    And I completely agree on trying new experiences in new countries, but having said that – I’ve always seen many try cupping , somehow I fear it – I fear it’ll hurt my tissues and increase my EDS problems. I haven’t even researched if it would but you know how you get a strong instinct whether something is good for you or not – that’s what I feel with cupping, although I am very fascinated with trying new things out.

      Carrie Kellenberger

      (September 13, 2020 - 1:30 pm)

      This post is a really old post. I wrote it in August 2007 – two years before my first diagnosis.

      I was in a lot of pain then, but like most of us, I assumed that what I was experiencing was normal and I was still willing to try alternative therapies back then. I would not do it now! This treatment was ok, but I knew right away that it’s not for me. The treatment after that, ba gua, holy hell that was awful and so painful. I do not believe for one second that it helps with chronic pain. It took ages to go away and even my husband was concerned because it lasted so long. We found out a few years later with my diagnosis that I never should’ve done that. The thing is, in Taiwan, if you complain about pain, they push you hard to try Eastern TCM alternatives first and honestly, none of it worked. So now when people suggest these things to me, I just say no thanks and remind them that I’ve tried everything over the past 20 years and there’s nothing else I’m willing to try at this point.

    Sheryl Chan

    (September 13, 2020 - 1:17 am)

    Haha my dad does it from time to time and comes home with giant ugly bruises all over. But it’s a common sight even on women here so nobody really bats an eyelid when seen on the streets even though it doesn’t look the sexiest.

    I’d be interested to try it (and many other alternative treatments) but unfortunately I have Antiphospholipid Syndrome, a blood clotting disorder, so this is definitely off the list as it causes blood clots! 🙁

      Carrie Kellenberger

      (September 13, 2020 - 1:33 pm)

      Honestly, I would never ever do this again. When I did this treatment in 2007, I was in pain, but I thought it was normal. I did this as a magazine series to show Westerners what it’s about and I regret doing the entire session. I can’t imagine doing it now. Gua sha was even worse and the photos are shocking. I also tried bloodletting – back when I was foolish and didn’t realize what I had or how severe it is. I’m not interested any more, but I do like to redirect people to these posts sometimes so they know the lengths some of us go to to escape or get some relief from pain.

      Like you, it’s common to see people here in Taiwan with giant purple bruises on their backs! I’ve removed all TCM alternatives from my list now except foot reflexology!

    Katie Clark

    (September 13, 2020 - 11:57 pm)

    Yah, I don’t think I’ll give that one a try. My insurance does cover 10 visits for acupuncture. I was pretty surprised by that. I think I’ll give that a go, at some point. Sometimes I feel like we’re guinea pigs. I get it that different things work for different bodies, but there are so many alternative treatments that are put out as working for Fibro & chronic pain. However, I so appreciate those who have given things a try and reviewed it, explaining the process. Then, I can make a more educated decision if I’m going to give it a try.

      Carrie Kellenberger

      (September 15, 2020 - 11:57 am)

      Does the acupuncture work? I’ve tried every type of alternative medicine technique, so I’ve got some whoppers coming up! Perhaps this might work on patients that don’t suffer from allodynia? It’s not an option for me. Better than the next one you’re going to see though! Thanks for stopping by, Katie.

    Alison

    (September 14, 2020 - 1:17 am)

    Hey Carrie – I actually get cupping massages regularly, and have found it helpful. I’m managing FND, but find that I have multiple muscle sets that tend to tense up and make life more challenging. My massage therapist added cupping techniques to her repertoire and while I’ve found the initial cupping a little painful, it’s been really amazing getting the massage with moving the cups around on days when my muscles are less tight.
    My massage therapist starts with more regular massage techniques, then adds in cupping to hit the tighter areas and effectively apply more useful pressure while she massages other areas of my body. I have a hard time picturing only using cupping techniques and nothing else, but as an additional component to my massages, I’ve really felt good about it.
    As for the bruising…yeah, it can look pretty ugly. My worst experience of ‘cup kisses’ was early on in my migraine journey, when my massage therapist used small cups on my face and forehead to try to help relieve the muscle tension. Cup kisses were left, resulting in my forehead having two small round bruises that were almost perfectly placed to look like the nubs for little devil’s horns! After my massage ended, I realized Al and I were going to a friend’s wedding in a few days! Al’s mom did an amazing job with makeup to hide those marks, all the while scolding me for not thinking ahead! It was kinda funny. Anyway, just wanted to share that while cupping is a bit strange and leaves weird bruises, it can be helpful for some folks, including me!

      Carrie Kellenberger

      (September 15, 2020 - 12:07 pm)

      Hi Alison,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your experience. That’s amazing that it works for you. And yes, it’s different for all of us!

      I don’t know if you noticed the timestamp on this, but I wrote this article in 2007 at the beginning of my health journey. I actually ended up doing cupping (and bloodletting) again in 2011 with a famous TCM doctor here in Taiwan. That story is coming up along with the gua sha story that I think is going to shock some of you when you see the photos.

      Reading back through site entries is always so interesting. It gives me a great reference point and also helps me remember just how much I tried before things got too serious. Back then, my frustration was simply that. Just frustration, but after I got really sick, I noticed that there was a heavy push for TCM treatments when they should’ve been treating me with a Western approach. That took precious years from me when we could’ve been working on the problem with medications to halt or slow down the inflammation.

      When I wrote this article, I knew something was very wrong, but we had no idea how serious it was going to get. Sometimes I look back at these and see my writing as light-hearted and a bit loose – some information, but this was definitely an experiment since I did it initially as a magazine story. It doesn’t have the desperate tone that some of my more recent articles have while seeking other treatments for pain relief, and now honestly, I’ve completely given up on any kinds of treatments that include ‘massage’ aside from foot reflexology (AMAZING) and acupressure. (Very helpful but way too expensive.)

      It’s very common to see folks here with cupping bruises, including Sheryl’s dad, as she mentioned below. It’s always so interesting to hear other people’s stories and experiences with it. Perhaps I should add an update to this article that says if you suffer from allodynia with fibro, perhaps don’t try it. If patients are strong enough, I think it’s important to try everything at least once! As for me, I’ve given up completely on TCM aside from what I mentioned above.

      So happy it helps you! Do they use fire with you? That’s quite a cute story about your cup kisses on your forehead. LOL. Made me smile. x

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