Cupping Therapy and Hijama

Lessons from a Cellist By Marion Bergan Irwin, M. Ac.

A 50 year old man in otherwise excellent health presented with level 8 out of 10 pain in this left arm. He complained that the left bicep muscle felt like it was in a vice grip and that there was numbness and pain shooting down the arm to the fingers. The pain had started one year ago on an overseas flight after having slept in an awkward position on the plane. He awoke with pain in the left arm that was so excruciating that he was unable to attend his business functions.
Upon his return to the States he saw a Neurologist who performed an MRI and neurological testing that indicated he had a C5-6 “Nerve burner” or “Stinger”, a compression of the upper portion of the left brachial plexus. He was given Valium and Celebrex that helped temporarily. After five months he started to work out at the gym but found that sit-ups were causing the left arm pain to return with greater intensity this time. He was also experiencing difficulty sleeping, as the pain would wake him several times during the night. In addition to being a lawyer for a national non-profit organization, he was a cellist for a major metropolitan orchestra. The pain and numbness affecting his left arm and hand were severely limiting his ability to play. He had to cancel concerts, and limit his teaching schedule with his cello students.

He returned to the Doctor and received cortisone injections with no positive result. Physical Therapy was tried along with Mobic to relieve any inflammation causing pain, as well as Lyrica at night to help him sleep. He found no relief with the Physical Therapy and limited relief from the medications. He was looking for alternative treatment when a neighbor suggested he try acupuncture.

My examination of the patient’s left neck, shoulders and back revealed extreme tightness in these areas.  I performed acupuncture with electric stimulation along with the Japanese style moxibustion called Okyu, which is the burning of sesame seed size threads of moxa wool on a thin layer Shuinko applied directly to the skin. These therapies promote circulation of the energy, which when stagnant cause pain. On the second office visit the patient reported that he felt a little “different”. The pain was less intense and he felt a bit light headed. The squeeze on the bicep was not as tight, and the numbness down his arm was less severe but still significantly there.

I sensed the patient’s desperation and was concerned my usual approach would not achieve results rapidly enough. As I considered alternatives, I recalled a recent conversation I had with a Medical Resident who was trained as an Osteopathic Doctor and was entering a Physiatry subspecialty training program. As part of her Residency, she was working with a physician who had done some training in Oriental Medicine. He maintained a 7,000 patient case load and had used cupping successfully with most all of them. He resolved their complaints in just a few sessions and they only returned when they had a new complaint. This was challenging her training which involved drugs and complicated procedures. This was so simple, it caused her to question everything. Since we were friends she called me to discuss what she was seeing. I naturally asked a lot of questions about what he was doing, how he did it, and his results. Up to this point in my career as an acupuncturist, I had not used cupping therapy very often. Having had some time to mull this conversation over, and considering the urgency with which this medication dependent Cellist wanted relief, I decided to give wet cupping a try.

I prepared the patient for what I was about to do, and selected the areas to lance, then applied nine suction cups to the upper and middle portion of the upper trapezius, and the medial portion of the lower trapezius. The skin beneath the cups turned red and then purple under some of the cups with the blood being dark, indicating significant stagnation. Cups were applied for about 30 minutes. The next week the patient reported he was feeling better. There was not a lot of pain, the thumb was still numb, the shocks going down his arm less severe, squeezing around the biceps still there but not as severe, and that he no longer needed narcotics because his pain was 60% less than when he presented at his initial office visit. I applied cups again without lancing and he reported at the next office visit a further reduction of the shocks shooting down his arm, and the tightness in his bicep. The trapezius muscle had loosened significantly with the exception of an area around Gall Bladder 21 and Triple Warmer 15. At this point I resumed using needles and electric stimulation as my primary modality of treatment.

This case revolutionized my practice. I saw dramatic results with this modality and began to incorporate it into my treatments on a regular basis. People enjoy the feeling and appreciate the freedom it brings to their lives. After 10 years of practice I am still amazed at the new things I am learning.