Chinese Cupping Therapy: My Experience (& Why I Don't Recommend It)

Traditional Chinese Cupping Therapy | My Experience

November 26 | 5 Comments

Chinese suction cup therapy, known as “Chinese cupping” or 拔罐 (Báguàn), is a fascinating and controversial practice here in China. What is Chinese cupping and is it good or bad? I’ve decided to give it a try myself to see what all the fuss was about.

Chinese cupping, known as 拔罐 or Báguàn

I’ve tried a lot of crazy things in my life. I’ve eaten rice-stuffed sheep intestine; I’ve willingly driven a car in China’s notorious traffic; I’ve rappelled down a rock face and much more.

I’m not saying that I’m a huge daredevil or anything. However, I do believe that I have an above-average control of my fears.

I almost met my match last Wednesday when I faced my fear of a traditional Chinese treatment known as “Chinese suction cup therapy” or “ba guar” in Chinese.

What is Chinese Cupping / Baguan?

Chinese cupping, or 拔罐 baguan, is a type of traditional Chinese therapy that involves heating the air inside a glass “cup” and placing it on your skin. As the air cools, it creates a vacuum that sucks your skin up and leave a hickey-like mark.

According to traditional Chinese practitioners, the practice is meant to draw out your “qi”, get rid of bad toxins in your body and increase blood flow.

Crazy, right?

By the end of my session, my back looked like this (I’m the tall guy on the right).

Hickey marks left from Chinese suction cup therapy, known as Chinese cupping;

I kid you not – it looked like I had been attacked by an octopus and the marks remained for at least 2 weeks.

I know what some of you are thinking.

It’s a massage…it couldn’t be that bad, could it?!

And no, it wasn’t a horrifying experience, but it also wasn’t exactly comfortable either.

How Chinese Cupping Therapy Works

One thing is for sure. This therapy sucks. Literally.

Chinese cupping therapy begins with the therapist preparing the back by massaging oil on it for 5 minutes. In my case, I was laying down on semi-hard “beds” in a massage room.

A Chinese massage room for various therapies

Traditionally, Chinese baguan is done using small, globe-shaped glass cups. Nowadays, you may see modern version of this therapy done using plastic suction cup sets.

The traditional form of this therapy is sometimes known as “fire cupping” because a small fire is lit inside the cup and quickly removed. This is done to heat up the air inside.

Once the heated cup makes contact with the skin on your back, the hot air creates a vacuum that sucks your skin far into the glass globe.

Chinese suction cups on my back

This feels about as good as it sounds, to be honest. It’s not painful, but neither is it comfortable.

Once the cups are secure you must allow them to suck at your skin for 10 minutes.

In total, I had eighteen (18) cups securely attached to my back and shoulders. I could feel the pressure on my skin the entire time.

What Does Chinese Cupping Do?

According to my Chinese friend, it is believed that Chinese fire cupping can help balance your qi (气), which is roughly translated as “life force”.

My Chinese friends have told me that the therapy is good for back pain, muscle soreness, rheumatism and even the common cold.

Yes…they told me it cures the common cold. And they did so with a straight face.

It’s a controversial topic, mostly because it’s an unverified science.

Modern athletes like Michael Phelps have used Chinese cupping therapy and swear that it helps increase blood circulation. Most modern doctors refer to Chinese cupping as “ridiculous” and even possibly harmful.

In my experience, the only thing I noticed was a sense of relief once the fire-breathing suction balls were removed from my back.

Frequently Asked Questions: Chinese Fire Cupping

I get a lot of questions about Chinese fire cupping and although I’m not a doctor or an expert, here’s what I know:

What are the benefits of cupping?

In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping was believed to balance your “qi”, or your “life force”. Today, many people claim it alleviates muscle soreness, increases blood flow and removes bad toxins from your body. Little scientific evidence exists to verify these claims. Chinese cupping glass balls

What are the side effects of cupping?

If done often, Chinese cupping has been known to cause skin discolorations, scars and infection. In rare cases, it has been known to cause bleeding in the skull when performed on the head (so please, don’t do cupping on your scalp!) Skin side effects of cupping

Is Chinese cupping therapy painful?

In my experience with fire cupping, the therapy wasn’t painful, although it also wasn’t very comfortable. Cups are left suctioned to your skin for at least 10 minutes and leave large, red hickeys on the skin.

Final Thoughts | Traditional Chinese Medicine

As you can tell from my experience with Chinese cupping described above, it was neither amazing nor terrible.

Did it help? No. Other than looking like I was attacked by an octopus, I personally felt absolutely no benefits from this traditional Chinese therapy.

If this is something you’re considering for yourself, make sure you consult with your doctor. There’s not a lot of good research around this controversial subject and there are possible side effects to consider.

Have you experienced Chinese cupping? What did you think?

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. This is not a massage therapy. You cup somebody when he has cold. This is a technique which is also used in Central Europe, though maybe now kind of forgotten but very efficient and good. But nurses here shoud remember how to do this. It's better than taking hectic medicines. Cheers.

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  2. @Adam – Regardless of whether cupping is technically a "massage", it still takes place at a massage parlor therefore I have no problem referring to it as such.

    I also disagree about your comment of it being "efficient and good". I'm sure there are positive aspects to it, but the Chinese claim that it cures the common cold is a bit bold and not at all scientifically proven. Still, it was an interesting experience and I have many friends here who do this on a regular basis…more power to them!

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  3. cupping is, in fact, therapy…it’s very therapeutic in the fact that it loosens up the many layers of skin and the membrane that surrounds the muscles of the area(s) being “cupped”

    it’s not the typical “fluff and buff” type of massage that people are accustomed to…but it is a form of therapy in that it is very helpful to the human body

    painful? yes, very
    beneficial? indeed

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  4. As a massage therapist, I can say that Chinese cupping is therapy. There are different methods. And if the people giving the service paid attention…They would have released pressure in the cup after seeing that much blood coming to the surface. They now make plastic cups with a pump so you can regulate the pressure. You can get a massage with “moving” cups where the pressure is less and the cups are moved by the therapist. That technique is great for just increasing circulation. The stationary cups should be put over specific points no just thrown willy-nilly over your back (as they appear to have done to you). I’m sorry for your bad experience….Try and find an american therepist who does cupping. They tend to be more understanding of pain. Every experiemce I have had with an Asian therapist has been bad. They seem to think that if it hurts, it’s good….that’s not always the case!

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    Josh on January 5th, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Trish, thanks so much for your comment and clarifications! I’m sorry to give you the wrong impression, but I actually had a great experience with suction therapy. They offered both the moving cups and the stationary cups. They said they placed the cups strategically on my back but I have a feeling based on the age of the people who were working on me that they were just doing it “willy nilly” as you said.

    The cups didn’t cause pain so much as cause discomfort. Plus, once they were finished my wife was horrified to look at my back!

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