The Quackery of Cupping

Cupping is a medieval practice and alternative superstition that doesn’t work. Quite, unfortunately, such forms of occult pseudoscience still make their way into our present-day communities.

The useless technique involves creating incision points along the body over which heated glass jars are placed, thereby creating a vacuum and drawing “humors” to the surface as the air cools. This derives from traditional Chinese nonsense that the body is governed by humors, or energies determined by the balance of “blood”, “yellow/black bile”, and “phlegm” fluids. Blood humor is associated with cheerfulness. Yellow bile humor is associated with being choleric. Black humor is associated with being melancholic. And, finally, phlegmatic humor is associated with being apathetic. Health is, accordingly, attained by restoring humoral balance. Quite outlandishly still, each humor fluid is purported to be characterized by two physical attributes: blood is hot and wet; yellow bile is hot and dry; black bile is cold and dry; phlegm is cold and wet.

The practice of cupping, as illustrated in the Frederick Dekker’s medical textbook, Exercitationes practicae, in 1694. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Aside from the fact that such a practice is based on prescientific superstition and primitive understanding of nature, no evidence whatsoever backs such claims or demonstrates the effectiveness of cupping as a therapeutic technique. All justifications for such a method either rest on the notion of “qi” energy meridians (purported pathways of energy that connect the body and soul and which don’t exist) or are derived from personal prejudice and private anecdotes of subjective experience impacted by the placebo effect.

What is perhaps very surprising is that such new age mysticism still works its day into our modern societies. Recently, Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, gave the practice a celebrity plug by posting an Instagram photo (here and here) of their undergoing the procedure. It is not surprising that masses of gullible, uninformed public should follow suit, and such celebrities would be contributing to the greater harm if more people forgo science-based medicine for quack treatments. For this reason, I believe that it is vitally important that people learn about the history of such purported remedies and to approach them more sceptically. The onus is not on the sceptic to prove that they do not work but rather on the quack to demonstrate that they, in fact, do.


Featured image credit: Wellcome Library, London


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