Baguanfa, or Suction Cup Therapy: An Alternative Therapy Using Traditional Chinese Medicine



What is Suction Cup Therapy?

The use of Suction Cup Therapy, also known as Chinese Cupping, can be traced back to 281 AD as a cure for pulmonary tuberculosis. It’s now considered an alternative therapy treatment for many medical problems, including gastrointestinal disorders and lung diseases.

This therapy consists of heating glass cups and placing it over a particular part of the body so that both the skin and the superficial layer of muscle beneath the skin are suctioned into the cup.


History of Chinese Cupping

Although cupping dates back to the Egyptians around 1500 BCE, China can be credited for improving upon the practice.

Ge Hong, a practicing Taoist and highly regarded healer in the fourth century, recorded the method of Cupping in A Handbook of Formulas for Emergencies* (Zhou Hou Jiu Zu Fang). During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), medicine men used animal horns for the procedure, terming it “the horn technique of healing.” But during the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1912 CE), doctors practiced the technique using bamboo cups and ceramic pottery. This created a new name for the therapy: “the fire jar qi.”

Unfortunately, pottery proved too fragile for the technique, and bamboo cups deteriorated from the continual heating. The introduction of glass in the twentieth century led to a more suitable material and had the added benefit of being see-through, allowing the doctor to check on the skin’s response to the treatment.

In both Eastern and Western medicine, shamans believed cupping sucked illnesses and toxins from the body.  In the 1950s, it was established as an official therapeutic practice in Chinese hospitals after research confirmed its effectiveness. Cupping now has a place in modern alternative therapy throughout America and is increasing in popularity among celebrities and athletes.


What is Qi?

Traditional Chinese Medicine defines qi as an energy or life force in constant circulation within the body. Symptoms of qi deficiency include fatigue and a weak pulse.

Did You Know…?

Ge Hong’s wife, Bao Gu, became the first female acupuncturist in China.

Uses and Benefits of Cupping

Cupping is beneficial in stimulating qi and detoxification of the body. It’s also used to treat conditions such as eczema, hives, or acne, and aids in decreasing wrinkles and rejuvenating the face.

By using it along the stomach meridian points, it can improve digestion and treat gastrointestinal disorders.

Cupping is also used to clear congestion from the lungs and control asthma. It relieves pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraines, and treats gynecological issues such as leucorrhea and irregular menstruation.

It’s also a method that helps break down cellulite, lowers blood pressure, and treat insomnia.


How Does Cupping Work?

Suction can be created in several ways:

  • Rubbing alcohol is swabbed into the bottom of the cup, then lit on fire, extinguished, and the cup is placed immediately onto the skin. This is called dijiufa (alcohol-fire cupping).
  • An inverted cup is placed over an open flame to heat it and then placed atop the skin. This is called shanhuofa (flash-fire cupping).
  • An alcohol-soaked pad over an insulating material is lit on fire, a cup immediately placed over it to extinguish the fire.
  • Some cups have a valve attached to a hand-operated pump, which suctions the air without the use of heat.

While the patient relaxes, the cup is left on the body for three to fifteen minutes. The patient should not feel any discomfort. In fact, it should be quite calming.

Some treatments include “gliding cupping,” where the practitioner moves the suctioned cups gently along the skin. Sometimes medical massage oils are used for ease of movement. In a way, it’s similar to massage except that instead of placing pressure on the muscles, it lifts the muscles upward.

Sometimes an acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin before the cups are placed onto it. This is often used to treat arthralgia (joint pain). Other times a magnet might be placed at the bottom of the cup and as the skin rises, it makes contact with the magnet, stimulating the qi.

In wet cupping, cups are placed over tiny incisions cut into the skin. The incision is usually made using a pricking needle applied to a vein, drawing small drops of blood once the cups have been properly placed on the body. This technique is used to promote blood circulation, detoxify the body, and alleviate pain and swelling.

Possible Side effects

Side effects are usually mild. Bruises may result, but are usually painless and disappear within ten days. Other possible side effects include mild discomfort, skin infection, and burns from the heat. These usually clear up after the skin has been treated with an antibiotic ointment and bandaged.

If you have inflamed skin, high fever or convulsions, or bleed easily, this treatment would be best avoided. Pregnant women should not receive this treatment on their stomach or lower back.

It’s best to receive cupping from a licensed acupuncturist. A trained professional will know what areas of the body would benefit most from this treatment as well as prevent pain and possible infection.


*Some texts decipher the title of Ge Hong’s work as the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies.


Resources for this article: