So evidently cupping glasses are still a thing?

I didn’t know they were still a thing. As a historian of ancient medicine with a particular interest in Hippocratic and Galenic medicine, the use of cupping glasses is something I’ve run across quite a bit.

But I didn’t know people were still subjecting themselves to it…

Bronze cupping cup, ancient Greece, 400-100 BCE Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Bronze cupping cup, ancient Greece, 400-100 BCE
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

So in last week’s post, I did a quick run down of humoral physiology and talked a little bit about how, according to this physiological theory, many diseases and ailments were caused by an imbalance of the bodies’ mixture of humors (or krasis). This imbalance can occur in either quality or quantity (or both). In cases where the imbalance, or dyskrasia, occurs in quantity, particularly an overabundance of a humor, it follows that the best remedy is to rid the body of the excess fluid. This is where treatments like venesection or blood-letting, purging, leeches (of which I’ve run across disappointingly few) and cupping can come in. These can also be used to rid the body of a corrupted humor – the same logic applies, if you rid the body of the icky, sickly humor, the patient will regain health. Here are few examples of cupping from the Hippocratic Corpus:

“If you wish to check menstruation, apply to the breasts a cupping-glass of the largest size.” (Aphorisms 5.50)

As anyone with boobs is likely to attest – this sounds particularly uncomfortable. There’s some complicated stuff going on behind this (I’m gonna delve into the Hippocratic lady-body a bit more in another post – but first there’s a book I want to read!), but the main idea of this remedy is to stop the bleeding in one place by drawing the blood out of another. The ancient Greeks saw women as particularly ‘leaky’ and thought that menstrual blood could come out of just about anywhere. But seriously. Cupping glasses. On your boobs. Yikes.

Here’s another mention:

A surgeon preparing to let blood by cupping, his apprentice Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images By: Jan Baptist
A surgeon preparing to let blood by cupping.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
By: Jan Baptist

“When in cupping, the blood continues to flow after the cupping-instrument has been removed, and if the flow of blood, or serum be copious, the instrument is to be applied again before the part is healed up, so as to abstract what is left behind. Otherwise coagula of blood will be retained in the incisions and inflammatory ulcers will arise from them. In all such cases the parts are to be bathed with vinegar, after which they are not to be wetted; neither must the person lie upon the scarifications, but they are to be anointed with some of the medicines for bloody wounds. When the cupping instrument is to be applied below the knee, or at the knee, it should be done, if possible, while the man stands erect.” (On Wounds 17)

This passage is providing some practical advice on the process of cupping and how to keep the body healthy after the process. The passage also emphasizes how the purpose of the treatment was to draw fluid out of the body in a controlled way.

The Hippocratic authors weren’t the only ones advocating the method; for example, the Roman medical encyclopedist Celsus has this to say:

“Now every corporeal aid either diminishes substance or adds to it, either draws it out or represses it, either cools or warms, either hardens or softens; some act, not merely in one way, but even in two ways, not contrary the one to the other. Substance is withdrawn by blood-letting, cupping, purging, vomiting, rubbing, rocking, and by bodily exercises of all kinds, by abstinence, by sweating…” (Celsus, On medicine 2.9)

Chinese woodcut: Medical instrument -- cupping vessel Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Woodblock illustration from Waike xinfa zhenyan zhinan (Guide to Tried and True Methods at the Heart of External Medicine), published in 1887 (13th year of the Guangxu reign period of the Qing dynasty).  Woodcut  Library of Zhongguo zhongyi yanjiu yuan (China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine) Liu Jichuan (Qing period, 1644-1911) Published: 1887
Chinese woodcut: Medical instrument — cupping vessel.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

It wasn’t just the Greeks who got down with this practice. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from about 1500 BCE, includes mention of the practice done by ancient Egyptians. The ancient Chinese, too, used the practice according to some archaeological evidence from around 1000 BCE.

But I suppose this is the point where you are thinking “Brie, what the heck are you talking about? Cupping? Cupping glasses?” – mayhaps I should describe the process a bit. Cupping is a method wherein you heat up special glasses, that are often bell-shaped and made of glass or metal, to create a vacuum. The glasses are placed on the skin and vacuum draws the skin/flesh up into it. Often, and especially in antiquity, a small incision was made on the bumps and bruises created by this process and then the cups were reapplied in order to purge more fluid or humor from the body.

The process continued throughout history. It was used by Arabic cultures in the middle ages and revived by the west during the Renaissance. But imagine my surprise when I learned that people are still using this practice today – both as a form a stress therapy (similar to the way that you would go get a massage) and medicinally. Medicinally! There’s even a British Cupping Society that is seeking to standardize and regulate the process – which I imagine can’t be a bad thing.

Cupping set, London, England Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Cupping set, London, England, 1860-1875
Cupping set, London, England
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Cupping set, London, England, 1860-1875

Buzzfeed’s Test Friends even tried it out, which is how I learned that cupping was still a thing. Because I have an internet problem. The video is actually pretty hilarious and, shall we say, enlightening – I definitely recommend giving it a gander if you have five spare minutes.

Anyway. I’m rambling. I suppose this all ties back to this idea that ancient and ‘natural’ is better. If you want to go get your back all cupped because you think it would be a nice, relaxing spa treatment go for it! And then take pictures and tell me all about it because I would find it super fascinating. But if you want to explore cupping as part of a treatment for a real, big, scary disease – please talk to your doctor. Not the interwebz. Not Buzzfeed. And not Gwyneth Paltrow.

I’m just going to highlight this conclusion from the American Cancer Society: “Available scientific evidence does not support cupping as a cure for cancer or any other disease. Reports of successful treatment with cupping are mainly anecdotal rather than from research studies.”

I'm just going to leave this here...
I’m just going to leave this here…

One thought on “Cupping.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s