Today’s New York Times has an interesting article about how western medicine is turning to ancient remedies to counter the looming “superbug” crisis.
Today’s New York Times has an interesting article about how western medicine is turning to ancient remedies to counter the looming “superbug” crisis.
The Post Cupping Prime Directive:
Keep the area warm, covered and dry. Avoid showering until the next day. Do NOT apply ICE!!
In all the recent media flurry over cupping, instigated by cupping marks on Olympian Michael Phelps, I’ve seen no instructions on what to do – and what not to do – after cupping. This is unfortunate, because if you’re not careful, you can undo the benefits of cupping (and its companion scraping modality gua sha) and even end up feeling worse than you did before.
Those marks left after cupping and gua sha are actual bruises, the result of broken capillaries in the tissues under the skin. In Chinese medical terminology, these marks represent the release of some combination of heat, wind and dampness. Indeed, after cupping or gua sha the skin feels very hot, both to the touch, and as a subjective sensation by the patient. Sometimes so much dampness is pulled out that the cups actually steam up inside while they’re attached.
In Western treatments, the response is often to treat a symptom with its opposite. For example, if an area of the body is hot, the treatment is to cool it down, often to the extreme, with ice. However, with cupping and gua sha, this is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Those cupping bruises allow a release of pathologies, but once the area is opened up, Chinese medical theory asserts that the energy can also go the other direction. Cold and dampness can be drawn into the area, causing a relapse and even worsening of the condition, and possibly leading to chronic problems.
I’ve seen this in my own practice. Last year I treated a woman in her seventies suffering from sciatica. I determined that she had a wind/damp obstruction and that she could benefit from acupuncture as well as one cup over a point on her hip (Gall Bladder 30 – “Jumping Round”). Initially, after the treatment she felt much better. She had a dark, round cupping mark that felt warm to the touch. As I always do, I told her that she must let that heat release and do nothing to allow cold or dampness to be drawn into that point. These are important instructions that I always repeat.
However, when she got home and showed her family her cup mark, they freaked out. They overruled my instructions and applied ice to her cup mark throughout the evening. While of course they meant well, this was just about the worst thing they could have done. The next morning she woke up with sharp pain, her sciatica far worse than before her initial treatment. It was a difficult situation, as her family blamed my treatment rather than their response. Thankfully she did return, with one of her family members, and we were able to get everyone on the same page. For me it was a learning experience; oral instructions are not enough because proper post-cupping care can be counter-intuitive.
Yes, Michael Phelps and his colleagues jump right into the pool after cupping. It’s probably not the best thing, but these are world-class athletes with efficient metabolisms that recover quickly. They also constantly insult their bodies for the sake of performance. For the rest of us mere mortals, we need to be safe and careful. These techniques can be very effective as long as we take all proper precautions and don’t short-circuit the process.
The attention to cupping marks on Olympic swimmers has produced a recent flurry of press reports and a surge of interest in cupping. While I’m happy that more people are being introduced to this technique, I’m concerned that it’s being seen as more of a spa-type treatment than as serious therapy used in conjunction with Chinese medicine.None of the articles I’ve read addresses the contraindications for cupping, nor do they note that in the wrong hands and/or on the wrong people, cupping can be harmful and can make conditions worse. Also, specific protocols must be followed after cupping (or its companion scraping technique, gua sha) in order to avoid potentially harmful side effects. I’ll write about these post-cupping protocols in my next post.
Here are the main contraindications to cupping:
Trust your instincts. Cupping is not licensed or regulated.Anyone can legally do it. Many types of therapists are riding the wave of publicity and adding cupping to their offerings. (A cupping set can cost as little as $15.) Some know what they’re doing but many do not. Some truly want to help you and others just want your money. Please stay informed and stay safe!
Every few years cupping is in the news, generally when a celebrity is photographed displaying cup marks. A few years ago it was Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars. This time it’s Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, parading large cupping marks on his beautifully developed shoulders and back. (Probably also his legs, but I didn’t see those photos.)
In Michael Phelps’ case, suction cups are used as adjunctive therapy to western sports medicine. News reports stress that, although some athletes swear by the technique, the effects of cupping are “unproven” and possibly rely on a “placebo effect.” At the end of the recent NY Times article, it’s mentioned that cupping sets are cheap, and some people just cup themselves.
Cupping has been around for thousands of years. Originating in China, the technique began with the use of clay and bamboo cups, eventually evolving into today’s use of glass and plastic cups. The recent publicity begs clarification of the two distinct and divergent paths that the technique of cupping has taken over the millennia – that of folk medicine vs sophisticated scholarly Chinese medicine.
The current application of cupping of athletes is more suggestive of folk medicine – a broad-stroke approach. Where does it hurt? Let’s slap a cup there. This is very similar to the approach of the NFL’s acupuncturists, who, post-game, insert lots of needles into football players wherever they say it hurts. This is a very unsophisticated form of acupuncture which I would argue works more via a placebo effect (not to be discounted!) than with standard acupuncture energetics.
Thus it is with cupping. Yes, it can certainly relieve pain and pull out knots in muscles. But it can also do so much more.
Cupping and its companion scraping technique, gua sha, are used alone or in combination with many acupuncture protocols. Both techniques strongly move qi and blood, and they are to be used after consideration of many factors and with utmost respect. Because Western medicine does not recognize their effectiveness, they remain under the radar and unregulated. But they are not benign! They are extremely powerful in the right (or I’m afraid wrong) hands.
I believe Michael Phelps was cupped by an acupuncturist. The cupping mark on his anterior shoulder is dead-on the point Large Intestine 15 – “Shoulder Bone.” This is an important point for freeing all shoulder ailments, and it is also an important point for transforming “dampness.” It is often used in assisting its elementally paired meridian, Lung, in releasing pathologies. I frequently use this point in allergy treatments.
Cupping such an important point indiscriminately can have unintended consequences, especially if the patient is an allergy sufferer or has other lung issues. But presumably Michael Phelps’s practitioner is aware of this and has proceeded accordingly. However, it’s unlikely that the untrained, unlicensed entrepreneur operating one of the many new “cupping clinics” opening up will know this.
My next post will be about contra-indications and potential dangers of cupping. Please stay tuned.
The New York Times published a piece on cupping, thanks to Michael Phelps’s cup marks he’s displaying at the Olympics.
I use cupping in my practice almost every day. My comments will follow shortly!
It’s been a year – yes a YEAR – since I last posted on my blog. How can that be?
Actually I know the reason. Last summer I experienced what I’m now calling “digital collapse.” I was living much of my life online, spending hours a day on my computer. I became so overwhelmed with the constant stream of information – emails, Facebook posts, YouTube, news streams and everything else internet – that it paralyzed me. I stopped responding, and the emails piled up until my “to respond” list became impossibly long.
I’m back online now, finally answering emails some of which are months old. It’s going to take me a while. But it’s different now. I limit my time on the computer, especially on beautiful days. I take at least one long walk every day. It’s a much better way to live.
The internet is miraculous, but it sucks away your time. And since this moment is all we really have, it can also suck away your life.
That’s enough internet for me today. I’m off to Blue Mountain Reservation for a real life hike! Come join me on the trail.
(Note: I wrote this on May 24th but was unable to access WordPress. Big Red prevented my “Jumping the Wall” after all. I’m just back and am posting this from home.)
I’m in Changhsa – the capitol of Hunan Province – in the home stretch of my three-week tour. I’m “Jumping the Wall” – as the locals put it – evading the Great Firewall. Otherwise, no Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, New York Times or blogging. What people can see or know is tightly controlled in China. But as a foreign visitor, I won’t get in trouble for Jumping the Wall.
Many assume I’m here studying Chinese medicine. But no. I’m touring with a children’s magic show, experiencing China in a way few foreigners ever could. Our ten-person company includes seven Chinese people in their twenties – all of them good-natured and extremely hard-working. Only one speaks English. All our crew are “China One” – products of China’s one-child policy. China’s traditional family-oriented culture has been completely altered – no siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins. It’s hard for us to even imagine. These young people’s knowledge of the world is limited, and they know it. But they don’t know what they don’t know. They were astonished to learn that Americans adopt Chinese babies. In the ancient city of Chenzhou a huge statue of Quan Yin – the Buddhist goddess of compassion – drew blank stares from our crew when I remarked on it.
China’s complete break with its past – The Cultural Revolution of the 20th Century – included its sophisticated ancient medicine as well. Acupuncture in China was completely restructured in the 1950s and given a new name – TCM – Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was greatly simplified into about 80 patterns of illness and reformulated into a more western approach. Acupuncturists in China are all also western medical doctors – highly-trained and respected, but unfortunately also occasionally somewhat arrogant.
TCM remains the standard acupuncture modality practiced throughout the world. All my licensing exams were TCM-based. TCM is a good modality, effective for a wide range of ailments. But it’s only a tiny remnant of what existed before the Cultural Revolution – before it was stripped of its spiritual, mystical and shamanistic elements. Thankfully the old knowledge survived through a small number of Chinese doctors who escaped – including the grandfather of my teacher, Jeffrey C. Yuen – who now are educating acupuncturists throughout the world who are eager for this information.
The old medicine no longer exists here in China. In fact, it’s illegal to practice Classical Acupuncture here, just as it’s illegal to practice Qigong. I’m sure I could learn a great deal from the Chinese TCM acupuncturists, but instead my practice will be greatly enriched by my immersion in Chinese culture and language. There are still remnants of Old China, glimpsed through the windows of the world’s fastest trains – rice paddies still plowed by water buffalo, gracefully terraced hillside fields, a magnificent white crane swooping down for a landing – counterbalanced by a decaying ancient monastery sharing its mountaintop aerie with a cell phone tower.
China’s medical classics state, “All healing is rooted in Spirit.” China has repudiated its spirituality, yet there’s a great hunger for it here. Buddha statues adorn car dashboards and incense burns at the remaining temples and shrines. A growing number of medical practitioners throughout the world are learning the comprehensive systems of Classical Chinese Medicine. We will lovingly preserve it until China is ready to take it back.
The flu is out there now. Two otherwise-healthy people I know contracted a severe, debilitating respiratory flu that kept them each in bed for a week. Three others have, in the last week, experienced a very nasty 24-hour stomach flu.
Influenza is no joke. If you’ve had it you know that it’s much worse than a regular cold, distinguished by intense body aches, teeth-chattering chills (possible alternating with fever), headache and severe respiratory symptoms as well as utter exhaustion. In its most virulent form, the flu can be deadly. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (3 to 5 percent of the world’s population) and is considered one of the greatest natural disasters in human history.
How to Limit Exposure to the Flu Virus
According to the CDC, influenza virus can be spread by contact with an infected person or by touching an infected surface but is far more likely to be spread through the air by coughing and sneezing or even talking. One strong sneeze can propel over 20,000 flu-containing droplets up to six feet or more. How do you know if someone is infected? You don’t. People can be contagious before they show symptoms, and some people can actually have the flu but show no symptoms.
While I know this sounds bad, there are still some things you can do to limit your chance of infection.
What if you get the Flu?
Go to bed immediately! Bundle up and stay warm. Consume hot (non-caffeinated) liquids. If it’s not too severe, rest and ride it out. But seek medical attention if you experience difficulty breathing, worsening symptoms, high fever, unrelenting vomiting, severe headache with stiff neck, or if you have a serious pre-existing medical condition. But it’s most important to completely rest to allow yourself to recover. Your other responsibilities will have to wait.
Flu shot or not?
The western medical community strongly urges us to get flu shots. While many of my acupuncturist colleagues strongly advise their patients not to get flu shots, I try instead to educate people and let them decide for themselves. (FYI – I do not get seasonal flu shots myself, although a deadly pandemic might cause me to rethink that decision.) Here are the pros and cons:
Flu Vaccine Pros:
Flu Vaccine Cons:
It’s the most joyous time of the year – as we’re constantly reminded, with sparkling holiday decorations, parties, celebrations, special events, and of course time spent with friends and loved ones. For children, holidays are an exciting magical time. But for adults they can also be extremely stressful. As we ramp up to gift-giving and end-of-year deadlines, everyone’s rushing around, and – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – patience is thin.
For many people, holidays are difficult. Already-complicated family relations can become strained by proximity. Memories of loved ones no longer with us can become especially poignant. The pressure to be cheerful and involved can be overwhelming if you’re just not feeling it. And with each day shorter than the one before, the long darkness can feel like it’s closing in on us.
But it’s more. With all this rushing around we’re going against our natural instincts – ignoring our biological processes triggered by the shorter days, falling temperatures and a dietary shift (in earlier times) away from the fresh abundance of summer and fall to winter stores of root vegetables, grains, dried legumes, and other preserved goods, supplemented by occasional fresh fish and game. If we followed our bodies’ instincts, we would be spending the year’s longest nights resting and regrouping in quiet introspection, eating warming foods to fight the cold and boost immunity.
Instead, we’re presented with inexhaustible offerings of cookies, eggnog and chocolate, all of which tax the Spleen and cause dampness in the body, manifesting as fatigue, fuzzy-headedness and depressed mood – not to mention weight gain. (And who has time to exercise these days…?)
What to do?
Short of escaping to a comfy cave to ride out the holidays, there are a few techniques to help you through the next few weeks.
Aromatherapy using essential oils can be very helpful. Sniff or diffuse them. Brighten your mood with citrus oils of lemon, tangerine or lime. De-stress with Lavender. Wake up your immune system with Eucalyptus. Use pure essential oils; avoid scented candles that are not all-natural (most aren’t).
Get some exercise every day, even if it’s just a ten-minute walk. It will help.
Take some quiet time for yourself every day.
As much as possible, avoid sugar and alcohol.
Accept that it’s ok to feel however you feel. Try to spend time with people who care about you and with whom you are comfortable and can totally be yourself.
If you’re feeling really low, get some help. Acupuncture can be very helpful, as can light therapy and a variety of other modalities.
Best wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season!
We’re in the dog days of August, but you can feel the first hint of autumn in the cool nights. And for a lot of people, fall is allergy season.
People come into my practice with allergies year round, but spring and fall are prime time for allergy symptoms. In about a month, I expect to see lots of itchy eyes, sneezing, runny noses and foggy brains. Acupuncture is usually very good for reducing or eliminating these symptoms.
However, these symptoms can be lessened and even prevented entirely, if allergy sufferers receive acupuncture before any symptoms appear.
The classics of Chinese Medicine state that, for seasonal afflictions, treat the patient the season before the symptoms occur. This can dramatically reduce or even eliminate the signs of seasonal allergies.
If you suffer with hay fever or other fall allergies, consider getting treatment now, and you could have a beautiful, allergy-free autumn!