A closer look at the "wet cupping" technique, which lasts for about 20 to 40 minutes and involves pricks to let "bad" blood out. (JP/Vennilla Rajaguru)
Ani feels bekam is the best treatment ever for her gastritis. The 35-year-old mother says she has tried conventional allopathic medicines, but to no effect. After trying bekam, a popular alternative health treatment which uses the "cupping" method, she feels good.
Four months after beginning the therapy, her stomach problems are almost cured.
She neither groaned nor complained of pain during the 40-minute procedure, even though the skin of her upper back was being forced into cups through suction, and blood released via tiny incisions made in the folds of skin.
After the therapy was over, she said she only felt ant-bite-like-sensations but was definitely relieved of her stomach pain as if she had burped out the gas. She also claimed she felt much lighter than before the cupping.
Ani says she recommends the bekam procedure to her teenage children for treating the flu as well as for general well-being.
She and other patients queuing at a South Jakarta Bekam Clinic said many mothers also take chilren as young as six years for bekam to recover from the flu, a cough, bronchitis and asthma.
Another patient, Idham, said bekam was "effective". The 70-year-old is being treated for prostrate hypertrophy, and says he gladly recommends the treatment to his wife, children and friends. He feels better and relieved of pain after the therapy.
To those unfamiliar with the practice of bekam, questions undoubtedly arise surrounding its method of healing.
People often wonder whether the healing effect of bekam is psychologically or scientifically proven, or whether it is a faith healing practice or a therapy. The key question is whether bekam is a scientifically proven medical treatment?
Three broad types of bekam treatment are currently being practiced at various clinics, with or without the direct supervision of a qualified general practitioner or bekam medical professional.
A visit to Rumah Sehat Afiat clinic, as recommended by Persahabatan hospital, turned out to be very informative and thought provoking.
According to the clinic's chief, Mohammad Ali Toha Assegaf, a reputed general practitioner with many years of experience in the practice and research of bekam, there are three kinds of bekam.
"The three are dry cupping, wet cupping and aggressive cupping. There is no blood burst or blood flowing in the dry method. But in the other two types of bekam, the infected or diseased blood is drained out.
A patient undergoes bekam, an alternative health treatment that uses a "cupping" method in a clinic in south Jakarta. Many claim to feel revitalized after the treatment despite the absence of standardized training in its theory and practice. (JP/Vennilla)
"Among the three, the most effective is wet cupping," said Assegaf, who only treats his patients by wet cupping.
All three types involve transparent plastic cups or bio magnetic cups being attached to the skin of an affected area of the body.
The diameter of these cups varies from 2 centimeter for facial cupping to 5.8 centimeter for back or belly cupping. The person administering the cups on the body is generally called a tukang, which is translated by the doctor as a "therapist".
Standards of administering the "cupping" vary within these three methods of practice and depend on the therapists' training and knowledge of the human anatomy.
The "suction effect" of the cups on the skin can be induced either by using a vacuum pump or by burning alcohol or eucalyptus oil in the cups. Once the cups are attached, they are left in position on the affected area of the body for between five and 20 minutes.
"The wet cupping procedure usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes and in some chronic cases much longer due to the number of acupuncture pricks and incisions being made and the time allowed for blood to flow out," Assegaf said.
The blood flooding into the cups is widely believed to be "bad", "dirty" or "infected" blood.
The darker or browner the blood, the longer it is allowed to flow out until the therapist can detect fresh red blood entering the cup. Ascertaining when fresh blood is entering the cup before becoming mixed in with the brown blood can be a tricky task.
Once the bright red blood can be seen, the cups are removed and the bruised skin wiped dry with an antiseptic such as Betadine.
The visible reddish or blue-black marks take about two weeks to fade. Bekam is usually performed on patients every two weeks, so the marks normally remain as long as the therapy continues.
Recently, news spread of blue-black circular cupping marks becoming something of a Hollywood celebrity fashion, as revealed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears while wearing backless dresses.
There is of course a danger to health, such as the possibility of constricted blood flow in sensitive tissue areas, muscle trauma (contrary to the expected re-energized blood circulation), high risk of skin lesion and infection, possible addiction to the procedure, or confusing bekam as a popular fashion statement or alternative to temporary tattoos.
When administered correctly, the cupping method aligned to the acupuncture points of the anatomy will bring healing, according to doctors and patients.
Bekam is more than faith healing. Historically, it evolved as a systematic offshoot of acupuncture and today is practiced as a therapeutic treatment. What needs to be determined is how "effective" bekam is for each patient.
Another point for investigation is whether bekam can cure all diseases. And, is it the alternative therapy when all else fails for any ill patient?
Contrary to popular belief, even among his patients, Assegaf said that "bekam does not cure all diseases".
Even when bekam is part of the cure, he said it was "a complimentary process" to herbal remedies, herbal tablets and tonics, and lifestyle change in the dietary habits of his patients". This is a very important medical point that some people tend to ignore.
Assegaf insisted that patients must consult a physician about their ailments before they resort to bekam.
He is aware that in many bekam clinics patients do not consult doctors and instead rely on the therapists' advice. There are few medically trained doctors with bekam knowledge and interest, and not all bekam clinics are certified for practice.
He said that despite the widespread belief in bekam across Indonesia, there is no accredited academic course or academy offering training in bekam practices.
This lack of standardized training in bekam theory and practice raises many questions, such as how reliable local clinics are and how scientific and accurate their procedures are. Perhaps there are some bekam patients who suffer more from the treatment than they did their original ailment.
Answering the above questions is indeed the subject of a much required survey.