A cup of…?

As I continue to fight the good fight against my first respiratory infection of the season, I will serve you a few portions of learnin’ from the old blog. –PalMD

Cupping goes back millennia. In the U.S., the marks of cupping are often seen in immigrant communities, particularly those from Southeast Asia, and are often mis-identified as signs of abuse.

It’s an interesting practice, with many different explanations, depending on the culture. It’s often used to do the cultural equivalent of drawing out “ill humors”. Of course, there is no scientific basis for this. Historically it is interesting. At least, one would hope the interest were purely historic. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Despite that fact that cupping is based on ancient, invalid ideas about health and disease, it is popular in cult medicine circles.

Take, for instance, this website.

Cupping therapy has been further developed as a means to open the ‘Meridians’ of the body. Meridians are the conduits in the body through which energy flows to every part of the body and through every organ and tissue. There are five meridians on the back that, when opened, allow invigorating energy to travel the whole length of the body. It has been found that cupping is probably the best way of opening those meridians.

Could someone please show me a meridian? If they truly “transport energy” it should be reasonably easy to find one.

Cupping has also been found to affect the body up to four inches into the tissues, causing tissues to release toxins, activate the lymphatic system, clear colon blockages, help activate and clear the veins, arteries and capillaries, activate the skin, clear stretch marks and improve varicose veins. Cupping is the best deep tissue massage available. Cupping, the technique, is very useful and very safe and can be easily learned and incorporated into your family health practices.

I actually like to see evidence of any of that. Colon?!? I never thought I’d see a connection between cupping and poo woo, but then, the cultists seem to be obsessed with the colon.

Cupping is an ancient medical technique based on pre-scientific understandings of human health. When you don’t have much to offer in the face of death and disease, you might naturally develop your own ideas about how the body works, and how to affect change.

Thankfully, we are no longer in a pre-scientific era. Most of us do not think its better to live in grass huts, hunt and eat disease ridden carcasses, and drink unsafe water. What is it about medicine that attracts such idiocy? Alternative medicine? What about alternative flying? Alternative physics? Alternative engineering?


Journal of Pediatric Health Care. Volume 18, Issue 3, May-June 2004, Pages 123-129. DOI:10.1016/j.pedhc.2003.11.004.


  1. D. C. Sessions

    Alternative physics? You mean like the Rife microscope, promoted as being able to see with optical wavelengths, in full color, features in the tens of nanometers?

    I mean, besides all of the cars that run on water, perpetual motion machines, etc.

  2. minimalist

    What is it about medicine? The fear of death is a powerful thing, and many people — even healthy people — may grasp at whatever makes them feel better. Instinct can be more powerful than intellect, and something might make sense to people at a “gut” level, however incomprehensible it might seem to us.

    Or, to follow up on your “I’m a holistic doctor” post, I think it may be that patients not only want to feel like they’re being listened to, and that their doctors really care. I think it’s that they want to feel like much more active participants in maintaining their own health. There’s now a panoply of (often contradictory) viewpoints within the World of Woo, and some people may simply feel that having the freedom to choose between them offers them a large degree of control over their lives — rather than seeming to cede all that authority, giving the final word, to a doctor.

  3. My husband’s family does this. Their reasoning is something about pulling blood into the lung/chest area by causing an irritation. The increased blood flow would then, according to them, speed recovery. For the same purpose, they also use a mustard-base salve that is rubbed onto the chest and/or back.

  4. In the early 1960s, my father reported that one of the employees on our family dairy was ill and described with some bemusement the course of self-treatment that the employee had prescribed for himself. It was cupping. We shook our heads at the foolish superstitions being brought to the U.S. by recent immigrants from the Azores (from which my own family had emigrated forty years earlier). And now cupping has entered the woo-woo holistic mainstream. Wow.

  5. A long ago lover of mine wanted me to try this – she was convinced that it was the solution to my chronic bronchitis. It didn’t work and hurt like bloody hell – though what she did after rather made up for the pain.

    Remarkably, it was ultimately a serious course of antibiotics that worked it all out. Before that, I would get bronchitis six to eight times a year. It has now been eight years since that fateful attempt to use evidence based medicine and I have had bronchitis one time since – took a regular course of antibiotics for it and that was that.

    Aforementioned lover also had me try some very interesting fungi to try to deal with that and everything else that ailed me. They did manage to make me feel really good, but that was probably because the mutual friend who actually mixed the fungus added some rather special mushrooms to the mix, knowing I would really appreciate it. Which I must admit, I really did.

  6. Cuppingtherapy

    I found a great site for cupping therapy information
    the web address is:
    I also find that therapy is very effective for my knee pain

  7. Alex Besogonov

    Cupping is not ALWAYS bad.

    Cupping sometimes helps if you have a severe case of muscle pain. My parents used it on me when I was a child, it didn’t hurt, though it left me with wonderful circular marks for several weeks. And it really worked.

    My theory is that negative pressure somehow stimulates bloodflow.

  8. You know, I wonder how symmetrical the meridians are supposed to be. Either that, or buddy in the picture had a therapist that wasn’t real good at aiming…

  9. My theory is that negative pressure somehow stimulates bloodflow.

    That’s not a theory, more like an evidence-free post-hoc rationalization.

  10. mandrake

    Sometimes I wonder if some old “remedies” are based on the fact that they *look* like they’re doing something. After all, you can’t see that a pill is doing anything. Even after most doctors didn’t think that bloodletting did anything patients would insist on it.
    Of course, then there’s the stuff that’s toted as useful because it doesn’t have any “side effects”… because it doesn’t do anything (like homeopathy).
    Okay, so the theory needs some working on.

  11. chinger

    I do not know about meridians and so on. But, when i was a child, I often (several times every summer) have asthma attack. And cupping clearly made my breathing easier for several hours. But i do not pretend to know, why did it worked.

  12. Tsu Dho Nimh

    Are you supposed to apply the cups over the chakras? Align them with the qi meridians?

    And has anyone explained that the bruising can leave long-lasting skin blotches, maybe permanent ones?

  13. I can tell you that cupping is also advocated in the Arab world, having gained some popularity recently. Though it has less to do with “Qi” and more to with “bad blood”. I know member’s of my family who have done it, and frankly, don’t know what the hell to say to them. These are people with degrees (no doctors though) in science related disciplines, though along with one uncle I am the only pure scientist in the family. There’s an element of religion in all this to be sure, but I think there is a lot to be said for the placebo effect, since they swear by it.

    I’ve had a doctor once tell me that losing small quantities of blood from time to time, by donation for example, can actually beneficial. I never got a chance to ask for his reasoning on it though. I try to donate once every eight weeks for altruistic reasons, but if there’s added health benefits, it would be nice to know.

  14. There is also a South-East Asian tradition of rubbing the edge of a coin on the back of someone who is ill. That can lead to stripes (corresponding to ribs) that look like abuse.

  15. Alex Besogonov


    “That’s not a theory, more like an evidence-free post-hoc rationalization.”

    The correct word is ‘hypothesis’. Because it’s clearly verifiable and falsifiable.

  16. Calli Arcale

    I knew a gal in college who swore that cupping had cured her asthma. Suffering from asthma myself, I asked what she’d been doing for her asthma before. She’d never been to a mainstream doctor for asthma before, which left me wondering whether or not she’d even had it in the first place.

  17. Did anyone else notice that a lot of the chinese athletes at the olympics were covered in cupping bruises when they competed?

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