It’s called “cupping” but they’re actually little jars that are placed on the body for this ancient therapy. There’s a little discomfort as they’re suctioned on and you might feel a small grabbing sensation as the “cups” suck up what can only be described as a skin bubble. A small flame is wanded over the jars to create suction filling each with a dark reddish lump of skin that rises like a flesh cake. If the words “flesh cake” and “skin bubble” are turn offs for you, it’s best to take it lying down. Preferably on your stomach. You can’t see much in that posture.
What are the cups trying to draw out in their suction? The pressure and suction inside of the cups is intended to increase blood flow and stimulate muscles, though medical science has not yet been able to confirm its claims. Among them, a claim that the therapy works to release the chi, the life energy at the center of Eastern medical practice. That’s how Dr. Tran Khanh Van explained the benefits of cupping.
He’s part of the team of doctors at traditional medicine center Dong Y Hoa Sen (dongyhoasen.com). Speaking through a translator, Tran said to imagine the body’s blood vessels and channels for delivering energy are like streams. Some are open and flowing with no issue, while others are blocked, like dammed riverbeds. Tran explained cupping cleans and maintains the channels.
There’s medicine, and there are medicine-adjacent things: alternative treatments, traditional medicines, herbal remedies, etc. The conventional medical practice as Westerners know it is mediated by a plethora of unnamable, sometimes beeping machines doing the magic of healing. Medical theatre. In the other category are cannabisinfused things, a tea for immune system enhancement, massage. It’s there that cupping sits. The therapy has been practiced for thousands of years by a wealth of the world’s cultures, but the jury’s out scientifically on whether the practice delivers real results. It resurfaced to broad public awareness in 2016 when Olympic swimmer Micheal Phelps appeared with red, half dollarsized discs on his body, the witness marks of the therapy.
Relieving overworked muscles is one use for cupping, Tran said. He added that cupping has historically been used by laborers to relieve muscular soreness. In the age of the knowledge worker, the practice remains a standby for some athletes who find the therapy works for muscle recovery after training. Tran explained that cupping can be used as a treatment for flu and some kinds of insomnia. There are a range of uses for cupping, but Tran said a doctor and an in-person examination would be the best way to find out if it’s the best therapy for a given patient.
Cupping is part of a menu of traditional therapies used at Dong Y Hoa Sen. The clinic also offers acupuncture and massage. The therapies are traditional and the medicines prescribed here are primarily herbal, but Tran and the team of doctors who work at Dong Y Hoa Sen are licensed medical practitioners. Tran completed a residency at a public hospital to get his.
Having come from a Western medicine environment and now working in a traditional medicine clinic, Tran opined that both are contrasting approaches but that they are capable of comparable patient outcomes. The chi, the flame dancing over the body to create heat—it may be difficult for a Westerner to see that as medicine. Skeptics are especially welcome, Tran said, adding a statement that can be neatly translated as “the proof is in the cupping.”
Images by Vy Lam