What is Cupping?

image showing three men in a bathhouse with one administering humoral medicine through cupping to another man.
An etching of cupping glasses
An etching of several cupping glasses. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Until the late nineteenth century, cupping was widely used for the treatment of inflammation and deep-seated pain believed to be due to an imbalance of the humors. A physician or barber surgeon would begin cupping by selecting the appropriate cup based on the amount of blood to be removed or the size of blister to raise. 1 The surgeon would then place the cup over the affected site and remove the air to create a vacuum. Lighting a flame under the glass or using a syringe to eliminate the air could create the vacuum. The cup would be left on the skin long enough for a blister to develop, the glass would then be removed and, in wet cupping, a scarificator would be applied. The scarificator is a square device that would release small lancets to break the skin, the glass would be reapplied and a vacuum created so that the blood could be collected. In dry cupping the blister would be left raised. 2

Example Case

During the Wisconsin State Medical Society meeting in 1875 Dr. Ira Manley of Markesan, WI presented a case in which a “strong young man” complains of pains in his stomach after bringing in the harvest. After the application of 16 cups and scarification to his back, the man was reportedly cured.

Within a few decades, cupping would fall into decline as new bacteriological models of health and illness replaced humoral theory.

Featured image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

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About the Author

McKenzie Bruce and Eleanor Miller.


Further Reading

The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal

The New York State Journal of Medicine

Turk, J. L. and Allen, E. “Bleeding and Cupping.” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 65 (1983): 128-131.


J. Haller, “The Glass Leech: Wet and Dry Cupping in the 19th Century,” New York State Journal of Medicine 73 (1973), 583-592

Monson Hills, “A Treatise on the Operation of Cupping: General Rules,” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1833), 261-273