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Experiencing Cupping Therapy
An American sucked in by the ancient Chinese technique
By Pamela Tobey | NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 8, 2016


A U.S. university student learns cupping from a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in Linfen, north China's Shanxi Province (XINHUA)

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, the big question from everyone outside China seemed to be "what are those red circles" on the back of U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps? My response was cupping, of course.

U.S. news outlets had to explain cupping therapy and why it is used by some Olympic athletes, because many people had no idea what it was. Apparently, athletes on Western professional sports teams have been using the technique for years, but it took Phelps to bring it to general public consciousness.

Despite the fact that I lived in the United States until my move to Beijing last year, I am familiar with the therapy, which is known as baguan in China. I like the Chinese term best, especially pronounced in a Beijing accent when it sounds like "Ba Gwar."

I go to a massage therapist in Washington, D.C. who is certified in several alternative therapies, including cupping. Although she doesn't refer to its effect on qi, the traditional Chinese medical term for the body's life force or flow of energy, she does talk about using it to affect the body's natural energy to improve health.

Back home, I receive cupping with a massage to enhance the effects on my muscles, stimulate the lymphatic and circulatory systems and sometimes to help alleviate pain. I have also had a version done on my face with tiny silicone cups that helps improve skin tone and circulation.

Before my first trip to China, I had heard all about the famous Chinese foot massages, so of course I had to get one. A Chinese friend accompanying my husband and I told the masseur about some foot pain I had, as well as a sore knee. During the massage, he whipped out some silicone cups and asked if it was okay to use them. Since I recognized the cups, I had no qualms about telling him to proceed. He used them around my knee, squeezing the cups to get the suction action and leaving them on while he worked on the other leg. Though I walked out afterward in some discomfort, when I awoke the next morning my foot pain had totally gone, as had much of the knee pain.

I have been back to the massage parlor many times for feet, shoulder and back massages, making sure the masseur uses the cups. I bring along visiting friends, and so far all of them have allowed the cupping, usually after a bit of nervous laughter. Maybe after the Olympics-related publicity, my future visitors will recognize what they are.

Many Western-trained doctors deride cupping for being worthless. They usually fail to take into account the experiences and practices built up over thousands of years from other cultures.

There are few comprehensive scientific studies on cupping and its effects, but several researchers have found some evidence that cupping helps relieve pain. Reviews of cupping studies published in 2012 and 2015 concluded that evidence of its usefulness in pain management and relief existed. The 2015 report, published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, also mentioned its effectiveness in treating acne and herpes zoster.

I must admit I have not been brave enough to try fire cupping, where attendants light a match or an alcohol-soaked cotton ball, thrust it inside a glass cup to capture the heat, then quickly place the upturned cup on the body to create suction, as the air cools and draws the skin upward. Nor do I think I will try "wet" cupping, where small cuts are applied to the skin to release blood before the heated cup is placed on top of the area. Since I have experienced the benefits of cupping without fire or knives, I will stick to that.

Now, I wonder if my massage parlor has anyone with facial cupping experience!

The author is an American working in Beijing 

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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