Cupping and Scraping

From Return to Spring: Everything your acupuncturist is too busy to tell you!
Jump to: navigation, search

Cupping and scraping are two separate modalities, but since practitioners who use one usually also use the other, I introduce them here as a pair. Alongside moxibustion and tui-na, cupping and scraping are two of the most common methods to be found being used not just in Chinese clinics, but Chinese households, as well. This is because cupping and scraping are safe and inexpensive approaches to healing that get results quickly. Nevertheless, as is the case with all TCM modalities, there is almost no limit to cupping and scraping one can be used for, which means that some practitioners of these techniques wield them in the treatment of chronic conditions and illnesses as serious as cancer.


Cupping involves affixing small glass, bamboo, or plastic bottles to the skin by first creating a vacuum within the bottle. The most common way to create this vacuum is with fire, usually in the form of a flaming rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton ball held inside of the bottle with metal forceps for a second or two to consume all of the oxygen within the bottle, before it is swiftly clamped down on the skin, where it will promptly suck a mound of flesh into its mouth and remained fastened you to like a hungry plecostomus on the wall of a fish tank. Since fire is not particularly easy to wield, cups whose vacuum is created by a specially-designed hand pump are also very commonly used, especially at home.

Be aware: cupping most certainly will leave a mark on the body. Basically, cups pull cold qi out of the body by creating giant hickeys on your skin, which can take a week or more to disappear. Although during the ten minutes or so that the cups are on your skin you might feel a bit of pinching or twisting pain, there is no lingering pain to accompany the hickeys that cupping creates.

If you’re particularly squeamish about your appearance or you’re planning a big beach trip (or prom) then cupping might not be for you, but for anybody who’s just mildly apprehensive, the upshot is that cupping tends to be very, very relaxing and can really work tremendous wonders to loosen up a stiff back or shoulder in a very short amount of time. And hey, huge purple leopard spots running the length of your arms and back—what could make for a better conversation piece?

Although theoretically there are no limits to what conditions a doctor might try cupping with, by and large it tends to be used for common colds and tension in the muscles, and is especially useful in conditions caused by such things as being caught in a draft for too long or maintaining an uncomfortable posture (ie, hunched over a desk for hours preparing your taxes or getting ready for an exam) for an extended period of time.


Scraping,sometimes called gua sha, involves dragging a hard scraper (which can be made of stone, plastic, wood, ceramics, metal, horn, or even anteater scale!) over the paths of certain muscles or meridians with sufficient intensity to visibly graze and bruise the skin, which leaves a red or purple track which, like the hickeys created by cupping, takes a week or so to fade. The most common place for scraping to be applied is on the back, especially on the muscles on either side of the spine, along which runs an important meridian with tons of acupoints. Less frequently scraped are the ribs on the back, the upper forearms, and the sides of the thighs and calves.

Unlike cupping, scraping does hurt quite a bit while it’s being performed, but the pain goes away as soon as the treatment is over (treatments generally only last a few minutes). Another difference is that scraping is often used for a somewhat wider variety of ailments than cupping is. For example, in addition to certain types of muscle stiffness, scraping can be very effective with the common cold, clearing phlegm, and even treating chronic asthma.

What to Expect

Always the case with both cupping and scraping is that the more deeply-rooted the qi of the condition being treated, the darker the marks that will be created. If you have a lot of cold qi in your tissues, you will end up seeing colors reminiscent of the skin of an eggplant, even if you’re usually alabaster white. Also, if you receive a cupping of scraping treatment, your TCM doctor will tell you sternly not to shower until the next day. Listen to him or her. Taking a shower right after cupping or scraping makes it easy for pernicious qi such as wind, dampness, cold, or a combination of the three to rush right in through the pores in your skin, which have been temporarily “opened” to pull qi out.