Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Chinese Bloodletting Forbidden In California

In November 2010, the California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) finally decided to act responsibly and forbid the prevalent practice of Chinese bloodletting by licensed acupuncturists. The practice became a concern for the DCA when allegations of unsanitary bloodletting at a California (CA) acupuncture school surfaced.

The incident allegedly occurred during a “doctoral” course for licensed practitioners. The instructor was reportedly demonstrating advanced needling and bloodletting techniques. During the process, he took an arrow-like lancing instrument that is called a “three-edged needle” (三棱针), sharpened it with sandpaper, cleaned it with alcohol, and then asked a student-volunteer to roll a towel around his neck. The instructor then cleaned the student’s temporal region with alcohol, and punctured a superficial blood vessel with the arrow-like instrument. The student then held his head over the garbage can, gushing blood for awhile.

The ancient practice of bloodletting, with or without cupping, is still widely used in Chinese medicine to remove “stagnant blood, expel heat, treat high fever, loss of consciousness, convulsion, and pain.” The amount of blood let depends on the condition, and the location of the incision. A contemporary book recommends letting a tiny amount from a point adjacent to the thumbnail for a condition described as “wind-heat invasion” of the lung. The symptoms associated with this unscientific nomenclature include chills and fever, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, and a yellow discharge, which could correspond to many respiratory conditions, including the common cold, influenza, pneumonia, etc.

Bloodletting with cupping, also known as “wet cupping,” consists of placing suction cups on top of an incision to expurge “bad,” “excessive,” or “stagnant” blood. This is the dirty version of “dry cupping” where cups are placed over an area of intact skin to draw underlying blood and fluids to the surface.

As several posts on the Science-Based Medicine website have indicated, bloodletting is not uniquely Far-Eastern, and has been practiced throughout the world since antiquity. Muslims still practice a version of it (known as Al-hijamah, الحجامة) for indications similar to those of the Chinese.

The Acupuncture Board of CA, which falls under the DCA, has come under criticism for being made up of trade insiders and affiliates of acupuncture schools, and — most importantly — for failing to protect the public from quacks and charlatans. In the past, members have even been investigated for taking bribes and selling licensing exam answers. The Board was replaced recently in an attempt to clean up the quasi-anarchic and corrupt licensing and practice of Chinese medicine in CA. It appears that now the DCA is taking public health seriously, and is cleaning up the profession, one calamity at a time. This time it reined in the practice of Chinese bloodletting.

Hopefully we will not need another gruesome or dreadful event for a “consumer protection agency,” such as the DCA, to also realize that beneath the absurdity of these medieval treatments, resides the immanent danger of undiagnosis and misdiagnosis of conditions that need real medical attention.

With many thanks to Kristin Koster for her valuable comments.

Editor’s note: For (somewhat graphic) images of the practice of bloodletting, see HERE.


1. State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy. “Advanced Textbook on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology.” Volume IV. New World Press, Beijing. 1997.

2. Maciocia G. “The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Diseases with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs.” Churchill Livingstone; 1 edition. 1994.

3. Seigworth GR. “Bloodletting over the centuries.” NY State J Med. 1980 Dec;80(13):2022-8.

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

You may also like these posts

    None Found

Read comments »

Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »