Cupping has been used to treat ailments across many cultures; and historical accounts and ancient medical textbooks talk about using the technique in different ways. Cupping therapy possibly evolved over 5,000 years ago and was practiced in locations ranging from China in the far-east to Eastern European countries such the Balkans and Bulgaria, and Egypt in north Africa. There is also evidence of North American Indians using its healing effects. Every culture and language developed their own terms for cupping therapy such as Bentousa, SchrÖpftherapie, Köpölyözés, Glāstīdams, Вендузи and Kyukaku to name very few. However, the most detailed records of the uses of the therapy have emerged from China.
Cupping in China
Cupping is a form of healing that is the oldest to be used in traditional Chinese healing and was often used in the Imperial courts of China by high ranking personnel. The earliest records that date back to about 3,000 years ago document the use of cupping to cure pulmonary tuberculosis. Later accounts talk about the well-known Taoist, Ge Hong (281–341 A.D.) who was known for his practice of alchemy and herbal medicines. He has described cupping therapy techniques in his book, A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. In it he elaborates on the use of animal horns as cups that he used for draining pus out of blisters thus giving the technique the name jiaofa, or the horn technique. Animal horns were also used by other practitioners to cause suction on the meridian points of the patient.
Books such as Necessities of a Frontier Official from the Tang dynasty describe the use of fire cupping that could ease headaches, abdominal pain and dizziness in patients. There are also detailed accounts of curing pulmonary tuberculosis and other similar ailments. Often, cupping was used in addition to other healing techniques such as acupuncture and moxibustion. These three methods together were most widely used during the Tang reign.
Further accounts such as the Supplement to Outline of Materia Medica were written during the time of the Qing dynasty by Zhao Xuemin. Cupping therapies known as fire ja qi used hot cups made of pottery or bamboo that were first boiled in a solution steeped with herbs before using on the skin. Accordingly, these methods were also called wet or liquid cupping. The cups were sometimes used over areas that were pierced with acupuncture needles. A wide range of ailments could be healed using these techniques such as common cold, abdominal pain, knotted nerves and muscles and arthralgia. Illnesses caused by cold, damp and windy weather could also be alleviated using cupping therapy.
In present times, cupping therapy and its documents spanning thousands of years are being explored and in-depth research is being carried out to test their efficacy. These efforts are being made by institutes of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that are funded by the government. Cupping is still used in China using the same prime techniques, though, glass and plastic cups are also now being used.
Cupping in East Asian countries
Aside from China, horns and other cupping instruments have also been discovered in Japan, Vietnam, the Korean peninsula and regions further north in China. These discoveries indicate that there is a possibility that the technique was first developed in China and later carried by travelers to other countries. In Vietnam, other techniques were used such as water cupping, air-pump cupping, acupuncture cupping and fire cupping.
Cupping in North America
North American Indians were known to be proficient healers but their techniques of curing ailments and maintaining good health were lost when many of their numbers were destroyed. They were forced to live on reservations and their culture was lost. They were known to use buffalo horns, bones and seashells for cupping.
Cupping in other countries
In Egypt, cupping therapy is described in hieroglyphic writings that date to 3,500 years ago. Medical books such as the Ebers Papyrus talk about using the treatment technique in 1,550 B.C. The Greek healer, Hippocrates is also known for using the therapy for curing internal ailments around 400 B.C. Various accounts from different European physicians such as Galen (131-200AD), Paracelsus(1493-1541), Ambroise Pare (1509-90) and surgeon Charles Kennedy (1826) all talk about using the technique. As recent as the early 1900’s, Sir Arthur Keith has written about the success of using it. There is also evidence of cupping therapy being used in traditional Persia, Arabian regions and areas in the Indian sub-continent also. In Persia, wet cupping practices were widely used. Cupping is used in the middle east under the name “Al Hijama”. You can read more about the Islamic use of cupping in our Al Hijama Overview.
Over the centuries, women in many cultures were the healers of the community and used cupping very commonly to cure ailments. They used the technique to cleanse the body of impurities, induce healing and often passed their methods down to further generations. It is believed that many accounts and techniques have been lost over time since women were not given higher education and allowed to share their healing methods with male healers. Even so, at the time, people believed in their healing capabilities and often traveled long distances for healing treatments.
The exact origins of cupping therapy as a healing technique are not clear but it is now an accepted fact that this method has been used all through human history. People migrating from one location to another carried the techniques with them to new lands and continued to practice it to cure a wide range of ailments. Cupping was also used to banish evil spirits from patient’s bodies and restore the natural internal balance.