California Forbids Chinese Bloodletting

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 (similar to what is depicted in Image 1). 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 a while.

Images 1 & 2. Chinese bloodletting. Image 1 shows a technique used to bleed the head or the face, where a towel is rolled around the neck to control the arterial pressure. Image 2 shows the practice of “wet cupping.”

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.”1 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,2 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.3

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 (Images 3 & 4).

Images 3 & 4. A practitioner of al-hijamah bleeds a patient at his clinic in the West Bank. Image source: Reuters/Nayef Hashlamoun (West Bank Health). August 2009.

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 un- and misdiagnosis of conditions that need real medical attention.

With many thanks to Kristin Koster for her valuable comments.


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.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Public Health, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (22) ↓

22 thoughts on “California Forbids Chinese Bloodletting

  1. Dr Benway says:

    At least they aren’t using rhino horns in those pics.

  2. Kausik Datta says:

    Holy crap!!
    Bloodletting… In this day and age!!
    I knew about the practice, but somehow the gruesome images drove the point home even more.
    I pity the poor sods that voluntarily submit themselves to such meaningless torture.

  3. vexorian says:

    OT: What can we done about this new BS pattern coming from scientology advocacy site, “” ? :

    “H1N1 vaccine linked to 700 percent increase in miscarriages”

  4. maus says:

    @vexorian: How is it any more of a lie than any of the other “news” on that site?

  5. If I really feel the need to get rid of some of my blood, I can do it in sanitary conditions, for free and I’ll get a cookie and juice to boot.

    Not to mention the blood might go to someone who needs it.

    Waste not want not they say. Look for an appointment for this amazing healing service near you.

  6. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Dr Benway

    They are using glass suction cups.

  7. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ Kausik Datta

    yep, Holy crap is what I said too when I heard about this. But I guess we are still not out of the dark age!

  8. ConspicuousCarl says:

    They cut your neck open to “expel heat”?

    That wouldn’t be a good option even if it worked. I think I would pick a bag of frozen peas over stabbing myself in the neck.

  9. vexorian says:

    @maus: It is not, but I foresee that I would need well written rebuttals from knowledgeable people to deal with that lie in the future once people start spamming it in forums like often happens with, so I was preemptively asking for it.

    @Alison Cummins: Thank you.

  10. S.C. former shruggie says:

    Holy cantalone!

    This really drives home how the post-Renaissance advances of our knowledge are as elective as the science courses that teach them. The dark ages are still with us, for those who want it.


    And I felt bad for falling for chiropractic in childhood, and some “all natural” hormone-based sleeping pill woo in my youth. And initially trusting a few pseudo-professional organizations that are CAM fronts… Well, okay, that is bad.

    This is really barbaric, though. Wow. I’m just thinking back to the plates demonstrating hemolysis in intro microbiology lab and cringing.

  11. Ben Kavoussi says:


    Yep, they puncture your temporal vessels or your brachial veins. They cannot charge $80 for putting a bag of frozen peas, they need something more exotic!

  12. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @S.C. former shruggie,

    Don’t feel bad, I felt for these too. But now it’s time to expose the nonsense.

  13. Jann Bellamy says:

    How is the bloodletting and wet cupping tied into other “principles” of acupuncture, such as meridians? Is it all part of the same system or are these completely different?

  14. Ben Kavoussi says:

    Hi Jann,

    It is all part of the same system: points, meridians etc. Actually there is strong evidence that bloodletting and acupuncture are intimately related. However, there are specific points where bloodletting (presumably) gives a better response. For instance there is a point next to the thumbnail where letting a few drops of blood is believed to be better for treating sore throat than just needling.

    There is nothing uniquely Chinese about any of this. The Roman physician Galen believed that blood vessels carry both blood and “vapor” (pneuma). Since the character “qi” also means vapor, it is very plausible that lancets were used in China to let blood and crude needles to drain “vapor.” Chinese medicine is very similar to the medieval medicine of Europe which also included lancing and bloodletting. And if it looks unique and exotic to its proponents, it is because of their lack of knowledge of the history of medicine.

  15. sherriejohnson says:

    Thank you very much for this interesting post. I would really like this statement sourced: “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”. I’d like to know what the agency did last November to put this new limitation into effect (i.e., passed a rule, decided a case, issued a policy statement). Nothing on the DCA Acupuncturiest website seems to mention this.

  16. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ sherriejohnson. The decision to declare bloodletting outside of the scope of practice of traditional acupuncturists was rendered by the DCA Legal Counsel, Spencer Walker, during the November 2010 Acupuncture Board meeting. The minutes should be available in February 2011. According to reliable sources, a letter will be sent to all acupuncturists and also to schools to let them them know that bloodletting is no longer in their scope of practice.

  17. daedalus2u says:

    I wonder if the metal used in the needles is important. I used to work with people who used some pretty exotic metal tubing, brass, monel, hastelloy, stainless steel, and the real experienced techs who did the machining said they could tell what kind of metal it was by what kind of pain splinters of the metal induced.

    I remember I once cut myself on a piece of copper flashing, and it hurt like a $%#@!!, much worse than a cut by stainless steel or glass.

  18. squirrelelite says:


    I thought of you yesterday when I was channel-hopping looking for New Year’s Day football games (which seem to have mostly migrated to cable/satellite channels) and stumbled across a show of Christiane Northrup on our local public television station.

    I didn’t feel courageous enough to turn on the sound and listen for very long, but I noticed she flashed a slide about

    — Nitric Oxide
    — something I can’t remember
    — Egg Wisdom (whatever that is)

    Any idea what she’s babbling about this time?

    Anyway, happy new year and good luck with your research!

  19. “I remember I once cut myself on a piece of copper flashing, and it hurt like a $%#@!!, much worse than a cut by stainless steel or glass.”

    I’ve worked with metal and glass a little (jewelry, lithography with metal plates and my artwork which uses found and created metal bits, glass for framing, etc), my observation is that the pain of the cut is related to the sharpness of the surface. Copper or tin like metals tends to get a burr (not readily visiable) on the edge when cut, I think due to the softness. This tends to snag as it cuts. This hurts like a son of a gun.

    Glass seems to break along sharp, smooth rather than burred lines and most stainless steel edges we come into contact with has been smoothed and sharpened (exactos, knives, etc). Cuts from sharp edges seem to hurt less.

  20. The beginning of my comment was a quote from daedalus2u, sorry about that.

  21. Ben Kavoussi says:

    @ daedalus2u. The arguments by micheleinmichigan seem reasonable. I do not have any further information about the pain involved. However, I assume that the least painful method (and metal) was the most preferred.

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