Cupping (part II)

This post is a continuation in a series on cupping. To facilitate a better understanding of cupping, I would suggest you first review an introduction to the connective tissues and their layered formation by reading Fascia Facts.

The History of Cupping

Believe me when I say cupping is nothing new.  It has been utilized for thousands of years, and is also known as vacuum or suction therapy.  No surprise that there is not consensus as to the origin of cupping, kind of like Ohio and North Carolina arguing about who was truly first in flight.  Some sources credit the Chinese as early as 281 AD (with cupping, not flying), while others cite evidence that ancient Egyptian societies utilized cupping as far back as 1500 BC.  There is evidence that even primitive cultures utilized cupping, perhaps testimony to its ease of application and significant benefit.  My home cupping kit has a depiction of a dude sitting behind another dude sucking on what looks like a cow horn affixed to the back of his friend/patient. 

Primitive cupping with animal horns
Here’s the picture on the front of the box of the cupping kit I have at home. To me it speaks of a people who perhaps may not have had MD, PhD, DO, PT, LAC, LMT, RN, DC, ATC, or whatever after their name. They may not have understood the physiology behind what they were doing. All they knew was it worked! Certainly not to cure ever disease and dysfunction, but enough to where it has survived the centuries. So why don’t more of us use it now?

Everyone has heard of Hippocrates, the Greek physician who so strongly influenced the healing arts that he continues to garner the title Father of Medicine.  The Hippocratic Oath is still taken by many medical school graduates, and exhorts these exhausted individuals to “promise to share knowledge, to help the ill and not cause harm, and to never give a deadly drug or help another to use one.”  Hmm.  This should give us all pause, especially considering the recent OxyContin/Oxycodone debacle.  I have this daydream of setting up a treatment table outside of a pain clinic or pharmacy.  All I do is cup people coming and going and they are then able reduce or eliminate their pain meds.  I don’t mean to discredit the help these places offer, or simplify the complexity of some people’s conditions.  But I have both felt and seen how powerful cupping can be on painful conditions, without a long list of potential side effects.  The simplicity and effectiveness of this intervention justifies at least considering it for pain control.   

Various images of Hippocrates on books about him, his work (which included cupping), and his writings. His influence was so pervasive and timeless that these books are still read today. Images from Amazon books.

Hippocrates used cupping in practice until his death in 370 BC.  He firmly believed in first tapping into an individual’s inherent capacity to heal naturally with massage, nutrition, cupping, rest, and exercise before resorting to pharmaceuticals.  I have to wonder what he would think about our current medical model that typically overlooks many of these interventions preferring medications, especially in Western medicine.  My training to become a physical therapist included absolutely nothing about cupping (don’t worry, I am now very competent with my cups!).  This is a sad reflection of our “sophisticated” Western medical model.  Yet I see the tide turning as people, be they patients or clinicians, become more open to exploring what other cultures/countries/mindsets have found to be beneficial.  Other countries seem much more open to such interventions than what is mainstream for healthcare in the USA.  I recall using cupping on a young girl to help reduce swelling from an ankle sprain she had sustained.  Her mother, who was from Russia and sitting in the room while I cupped her daughter, related memories from her childhood of being cupped on her rib cage by her mother and grandmother back in Russia every time she was sick.  It was the first thing they pulled out – not the Robitussin or antibiotics. 

Bloodletting and cupping instruments Fort Mackinac hospital museum
An exhibit on cupping and bloodletting at the Fort Mackinac Army hospital museum on Mackinac Island, Michigan, from approximately 1860. The bloodletting and the cupping could be used together or in isolation, at the discretion of the surgeon, for a variety of reasons. Photo by Colleen Whiteford at the Fort Mackinac Army Hospital Museum.
Cupping kit and picture of Fort Mackinac Army hospital 1860
On the left is a close-up of the cupping kit used at the military hospital in Fort Mackinac, Michigan. At that time and in those circumstances no physician would be without such a kit. Brass and glass were the materials available at the time. On the right is a photo of the hospital as it appeared in the 1880’s. Photo of cupping kit by Colleen Whiteford at the Fort Mackinac Army Hospital Museum. Photo of hospital accessed online at, and originally discovered in the digital from collection of the U.S. National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

Watch for more information on cupping in future posts!

Wishing you health and joy,


Published by Colleen Murphy Whiteford

I am a physiotherapist, graduate of Saint Louis University Class of 1984. I married my best friend and business partner, Bill, who is also a physiotherapist, in 1988. We have worked together all these years - an example of God's grace! Together we started Appalachian Physical Therapy which continues to thrive. I am a big believer in the power of touch, the manual therapies, and treating holistically. There are many alternatives to medications, surgeries, and testing, but people are often uninformed. My perspective emphasizes the role of the connective tissues including the fascia. Lack of attention to this structure is the source of many physical ailments - our bodies are truly fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139)! I am passionate about helping people of all ages and diagnoses maximize their health, and empowering them to understand their role in management and prevention of problems.

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