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China series: Cupping for pain relief

Published:Sunday | June 3, 2012 | 12:00 AM

In our folk medicine, we know of a number of bush cures which are widely used. But how often do you hear of cupping? This is a treatment for a number of blood, muscular and joint ailments, where fire is used in a small container directly on the affected spot. Scientists refer to this as 'moxibustion'.

We are not sure where this practice originated, but records show that forms of this practice of healing were being used in China from as early as the seventh century BC, and, before that, in the Stone Age as soon as the use of fire was discovered. Prior to that, stones heated by the sun were used to relieve some ailments.

The range of ailments for which moxibustion was used is very wide. It was used even for persons with a common cold and was often used in conjunction with acupuncture, depending on the patient's condition.

The treatment is aimed at dispelling dampness from the body, strengthening the blood, stimulating the flow of healthy energy and aiding the general well-being of the body.

Cupping may be used especially when the ailment is blood-related. It is thought that it draws out the 'bad blood', or is used to draw toxins out of the blood.

Studies being done by a hospital at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine indicate that there are two methods used in this therapy.

One is direct treatment where special herbs burning in a vessel are placed directly on the affected location. The herb is allowed to burn completely. This may lead to burns and scars, which will take weeks to heal. This treatment, some physicians say, can lead to cures of asthma and tuberculosis.

non-scarring method

The second method is the non-scarring method where the burning herb is extinguished before it burns off. This is a more comfortable sensation for the patient as the heat produced penetrates the skin without severe burning pain, blistering or scarring. This is the more commonly used of the two methods, especially in the treatment of children.

Cupping has been developed over the years and now there are sticks of special herbs which are sometimes burnt directly on the problem spot, in some instances, replacing the small cup or vessel.

The treatment is safe, it is believed, especially when carried out by a qualified and skilled professional. However, there are conditions when it must not be used. Pregnant women must avoid this as well as those suffering from emotional or respiratory problems or who are struggling with alcoholism. It is said to be particularly effective in the treatment of arthritis and muscular cramps, including menstrual cramps. One scientist who has studied the method said it is very helpful in strengthening the immune system and is an effective cure for fatigue.

Cupping is still in use in the United States, Canada and many Asian countries, but mainly the milder version.

Some modern physicians are skeptical and warn against this ancient practice. However, there are others who say it is effective. In Jamaica, there are many older persons who claim it is a good way to cure ailments. In any case, we should be careful how we use these cures as, according to some researchers, they may do more harm than good. Here in Jamaica, its use is rare because modern medicine is now more readily available than, say, in the early 1900s and before.