No needles: New-old acupuncture is 'cupping'

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Suctioning brings relief, but sometimes bruises

Health & Fitness

August 29, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | By Erika Hobbs,Special to the Sun

The circular bruises on Gwyneth Paltrow's back above her strapless dress at a movie premiere this summer have sparked a new interest in an obscure Chinese acupuncture technique.

The therapy, called cupping, was reportedly used by Paltrow to treat back pain.

"Now patients are calling me, asking, 'What is this thing called cupping?' No one ever asked about it before," said Lixing Lao, an acupuncturist and associate professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore.

Cupping is a therapy used primarily for back pain that uses suction between a specialized cup and a patient's skin to increase circulation and to relieve pain, but sometimes it leaves bruises that can take several days to heal.

Pat Brownlee, a Baltimore health care professional, said that she has never had more than temporary redness when her acupuncturist uses cupping to relieve her minor backaches during regular weekly sessions.

"It's wonderful," she said of the technique.

According to her practitioner, Haiyang Li, of Timonium 2 / 3 cupping dates back more than 2,000 years and is a form of acupuncture that doesn't use needles.

"Some people are afraid of needles, sometimes this just works better," he said.

Cupping, Lao explained, is rarely used alone -- usually it is done in conjunction with traditional acu-puncture.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that cupping, like acupuncture, unblocks congested "qi," or energy. Lao said cupping opens blood vessels and draws blood nearer to the skin's surface. The increased circulation is believed to help speed healing and reduce pain and inflammation.

Few studies have been done on the efficacy of cupping, practitioners said, and none have been performed outside China.

"If it's worked for 2,000 years in Eastern medicine, why wouldn't it work for me?" asked Barry Brownlee, Pat's husband, who has used cupping to treat back pain. The couple has been attended by Li almost weekly since 1999.

Cupping is primarily used to treat back pain, along with other muscle or joint pain, and gastrointestinal problems. In some cases, it is also used to treat arthritis and chest congestion.

People with skin conditions and convulsive disorders or those who are severely ill or bleed easily should avoid cupping, Lao said. Pregnant women also should avoid the technique.

While the cups themselves have evolved over the years, Li explained, the procedure has basically remained the same. Early cups were made from bamboo, animal horns or glass, and their relatively large size limited the areas on the body that could be treated. For example, it was difficult to treat toes, fingers or ankles.

Today, most acupuncturists use plastic, bell-shaped cups that vary in size, like nesting dolls.

In the past, acupuncturists used herbs, matches or alcohol swabs to light a fire to gently heat the inside of the cup, and quickly place it against the skin. Most practitioners, however, now insert vacuum guns into valves on top of the plastic cups to create a seal.

With either technique, the cup is placed along certain pathways on the body, called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners, who have mapped meridians over the centuries, believe qi travels along these routes.

The vacuum sucks the skin up into the cup, and blood rushes to the surface and reddens the skin. Depending on the condition, acupuncturists can choose "dry," "moving" or "wet" cupping. Most sessions last about 15 minutes.

In dry cupping, several cups are placed on the affected area. When they are removed, they can leave red marks or bruises. Li said he tries to avoid marking his clients, but some acupuncturists believe that some conditions require strong suction.

On a recent Saturday morning, Pat Brownlee met Li for an acupuncture appointment to treat residual pain stemming from a broken back she suffered years ago.

Li used a technique called "moving" cupping. He lubricated her skin with oil, and affixed a single, plastic cup -- with the vacuum gun -- to her skin. He slid the cup in a long, rectangular pattern around her upper back.

Although red quickly streaked her skin, Brownlee, 57, said the procedure didn't hurt.

"It feels warm, maybe a little tight, but it feels good," she said in the small treatment room, which was pungent with herbs.

More rare is a technique called "wet" cupping, where practitioners superficially puncture the skin with super-fine needles to draw a little blood before the cups are put in place. It is believed this helps draw toxins out of the system.

In Maryland, all acupuncturists must be licensed by the state, according to Penny Heisler, executive director of the state Board of Acupuncture.

To qualify, they must have graduated from an accredited school and have 1,800 hours of training in acupuncture, 300 hours of which must be in a clinical setting. Or they must receive a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

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