The dangers of cupping and how to avoid them

Cupping in practise.
Cupping in practise. Photo credit: Getty

Kiwi acupuncturists say the ancient Chinese practise of cupping is safe, despite a new report linking it to 20 hospitalisations here and across the Tasman in recent years.

An article in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia found 20 cases between 2009 and 2016 where cupping had gone so badly wrong, patients required hospital treatment.

A 34-year-old man undergoing cupping treatment ended up with burns to 5 percent of his body after a container of methylated spirits spilled onto his right-hand side, catching fire.

"Obviously it was someone who doesn't know what they're doing," Angie Harding, president of the Acupuncture NZ Council, told Newshub.

Cupping burns
Burns to a cupping victim's body. Photo credit: MJA

In another case, a patient's clothes were set alight.

Eight of the victims were Vietnamese, five Australian, four Greek, one Turk and the other two not stated.

It's not clear how many of the incidents happened in New Zealand, but Ms Harding says it's likely none of them took place under the supervision of a registered practitioner.

"We're a self-governing regulatory body, and we are in the process of looking at becoming a regulatory authority with the Ministry of Health," says Angie Harding.

"We have within our organisation clinical procedures and guidelines, which cupping is included in."

Cupping, which dates back to before Christ, involves heating the air inside a cup and placing it on a patient's skin. As the air cools it contracts, sucking blood to the surface and removing toxins - according to its practitioners.

"If you've got internal bruising it can bring it to the skin so it can go away as waste," says Ms Harding. "It can bring out toxins as well. A lot of sportspeople will do it if they've got tightness in the muscles."

Those sportspeople include Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and rugby star Sonny Bill Williams, who takes part in a hardcore variant called hijama cupping, which involves incisions in the skin.

Modern cupping practitoners often use plastic cups, removing the air through suction rather than fire.

There is little scientific evidence cupping does any good, but Ms Harding says it took centuries for science to catch up to acupuncture. As for the danger of being burned, she says it comes with the territory.

"There is always a risk with anything. You stick a needle in someone, there's a risk. You cup someone, there's a risk. However, with the right trained people, the risk is very, very minimal."

Ms Harding says to be registered, acupuncturists have to complete a four-year bachelor's degree. If they don't, that doesn't stop them from carrying out the treatment - but Ms Harding has one piece of advice for anyone considering visiting an unregistered practitioner.

"Having never been to a back alley because the thought just terrifies me, it's just simple - you just don't."