Cupping: On your marks for ancient treatment

As an Olympic athlete is spotted with the telltale bruises left by cupping, a traditional Chinese treatment for joint pain, Rob Sharp tries out the ancient therapy for himself

When I was asked to try out "cupping" at a London clinic yesterday, I had no idea what to expect. How is it done? Would it hurt? Judging by the pictures in the press this week of an Olympic swimmer sporting painful-looking suction marks left by the Chinese treatment, it appeared so.

However, cursory research indicated that cupping – used to combat back pain, drain excess fluids and toxins, stimulate the nervous system and increase blood flow to the muscles – is only meant to be "mildly painful". That, of course, depends upon what you class as mild.

I phoned a friend for reassurance. "Stop being such a wimp," she barked. I set off for the Institute of Chinese Medicine on The Strand in central London, with some trepidation.

I'm a great believer in Western medicine. Pharmaceuticals are my friend. If I have a headache, I'll take a Nurofen, not find the relevant acupressure point. But could cupping – which involves placing heated glass cups on one's back to create suction and a lifting of the skin (leaving red blotches that can remain for two weeks) – convert me?

The clinic receptionists tried to put me at my ease. Cupping is a popular form of treatment for staving off colds, they explained, not to mention relieving stress and "restoring inner balance". It sounded perfect... My stress levels were certainly building as I sat, waiting.

I was greeted by Dr Fei Wang, an acupuncturist who also practises cupping. The technique has been used for thousands of years in China, he explained, and can have beneficial effects on joint pain, especially in the neck, elbow or lower back, an area I'm feeling a few twinges in after a weekend sleeping in a tent at the Big Chill festival. One treatment, lasting about half an hour, is all that's needed to feel the benefits.

There are two varieties of cups that can be used in the procedure, glass or bamboo, and Dr Wang ran through the differences between them. Bamboo is the more traditional. In China, it is boiled before being placed on the skin. Nowadays, however, glass has generally replaced bamboo as it allows practitioners to see the skin underneath.

The cups need to be heated before they are placed on the body, and there are various ways of doing this. One involves swabbing the base of each cup with alcohol-soaked cotton wool, igniting the alcohol, and then quickly placing the cup on the surface of the skin – the burning of the alcohol consumes oxygen, which creates suction. Another way involves igniting an alcohol-soaked tissue stuck to the bottom of the cup, although, he explained, this method could sometimes involve burning alcohol being accidentally dripped on to the skin, which didn't sound good. There are other methods, too, one involving mini tripods and flaming cotton, but by this time I just wanted to get on with things.

Dr Wang and his cups were ready to go. He was treating me for my lower back pain, and he deemed that I needed five cups. I stripped down to my jeans and lay face down on the bed.

Dr Wang ignited the cups before placing them quickly all over my back. The sensation took me by surprise and I let out a mild yelp. Dr Wang urged me to relax and I began to experience a warm sensation followed by a tightening of the skin as it rose up into the glass cups. It wasn't painful, more strange. The cups were left there for five minutes. As the time ticked by, I felt more relaxed.

Then the process was repeated on my front, this time using a bamboo cup placed over my belly button. This time, I felt nothing except mild indigestion.

And then I was done.

Dr Wang talked me through the new blotches that would be my friends for the next two weeks. On the front of my body, where the blotches are lighter in colour, my circulation is better, he explained. On my back, where the blotches are a darker red, I have worse circulation. Overall, however, I'm in pretty good shape, with decent circulation and good digestion.

It's not all good news, though, as Dr Wang believes I also suffer from "mild damp" (which he diagnosed by looking at my tongue) – the result of "too much beer and cheese". "Eat more vegetables," he concluded.

Back in the office, my colleagues surveyed the damage. The marks are very noticeable, and contrary to what I've read about the treatment, quite sore to touch. My minor back pain, however, is undimmed.

Cupping is certainly a relaxing treatment, but I'm unsure that it has any real medicinal benefits. Time will tell if it propels its Olympian devotees to victory. Me? I'll stick to the Nurofen.