Cupping - Ancient Medicine, Modern Explanation

I've recently become a big fan of cupping. Cupping is the process of putting low pressure cups on peoples back to remove toxins and move Blood. Famous celebrities who have had it done include Gwyneth Paltrow.

Cupping involves creating a vacuum in the cup that is then used to pull the skin up. Traditionally the vacuum is created by the hot air from burning alcohol inside the cup but as anyone whose tried to do that kind of stuff on beach bars with tequilas can testify, that can get a bit messy. I use a vacuum pump from the good people at meridius (note: Im not on commission but open to offers).

It got me thinking though: If the alcohol and fire isn't necessary, how does cupping actually work?

In Chinese medicine cupping is used to remove toxins and move stagnant blood and Qi.

Edzrad Ernst, the 'Professor' of Alternative Medicine did research... on research... showing that cupping does practically nothing. Cheers mate, thanks for that meta-analysis showing that everyone else in the world is wrong. Now, back to the real world...

And in the real cut-throat world of elite athletes, acupuncture and cupping are rapidly becoming essential. At a physiotherapy conference I went to in Coventry, speaker Colin Paterson stated that 50% of elite athletes now use them, and this figure rises to 75% in China! Whatever is going on in these therapies is real, its our understanding that needs to catch up.

Looking like a whale shark does not improve drag.

Looking like a whale shark does not improve drag.

The interesting thing about cupping is it's generally done on the Bladder channel. Now, what does the Bladder do?

Yes, it eliminates toxins! 

In my book (I am on commission for this) I talk about how the acupuncture Bladder channel is a real Bladder channel in the embryo. This is called the mesonephric duct and disappears at about the 8th week of development; but it does have an actual connection to the bladder (labelled 'cloaca' below).

The Bladder channel of Chinese medicine corresponds to the mesonephric duct.

The Bladder channel of Chinese medicine corresponds to the mesonephric duct.


Not only is the Bladder channel involved with toxin elimination, it is also intimate with something that is called Wei Qi. Wei Qi is similar to the immune system in that it defends us from attack. Being the most external channel the Bladder channel is primary in doing this and this is why the principle point for nourishing Wei Qi is Bladder 12 (Feng Men) and the Ling Shu states that Wei Qi circulates primarily in the Bladder channel.

The medical conditions I would use cupping for are primarily retained pathogens such as in autoimmune diseases, ME and repeated coughs and colds. 

Autoimmune diseases are diseases where the immune system inexplicably attacks the body. Immunosuppressants are used to control this but never really cure the disease. In Chinese medicine these conditions would be seen as being caused by retained pathogens.

The immune system is incredibly clever and adaptable. It can recognises self from non-self and kill infected cells. Sometimes though (for instance TB) the pathogen can hide in such a way that the immune system fails to get it.

There is a theory of autoimmune diseases that states that the disease is, in fact, hyperimmune! The immune system is behaving appropriately in trying to get rid of a pathogen but unfortunately is causing too much damage. Imagine a burglar holed up in a house. The immune system is like the police battering down the walls as a horrified homeowner looks on

Turning off the immune system (with drugs) kind of works, but really you just want to extract the pathogen.

Combining these two paradigms we can have a simple rationale for how cupping works to eliminate toxins:

  • Cupping draws blood and lymphatic fluid from deep connections to the organ to the surface.
  • This fluid contains pathogens e.g.bacteria, yeasts,  fragments of viral DNAwhich then become 'visible' to the immune system.
  • The immune system (Wei Qi ) is then able to eliminate them

If this is going on it would be simple to test. Trials on cupping and autoimmune conditions should show drops in levels of inflammatory markers and clinical improvement. 

I did a pubmed search on exactly this and could find one trial on this. Yes, one trial on one of the most widely used and simple clinical techniques in the world! And what did this trial on rheumatoid arthritis show?..

That (wet) cupping improved clinical outcomes and reduced inflammatory markers.

This is why I like cupping. It's incredibly safe, easy and effective and when used properly gives great results. 

daniel keown1 Comment