Moxibustion is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves burning moxa, a cone or stick made of ground mugwort leaves, on or near your body’s meridians and acupuncture points. Practitioners believe that the resulting heat helps stimulate these points and improves the flow of qi (energy) in your body.
What is it?
Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves the burning of mugwort, a small, spongy herb, to facilitate healing. It has been used throughout Asia for thousands of years; in fact, the actual Chinese character for acupuncture, translated literally, means “acupuncture-moxibustion.” Its purpose, as with most forms of traditional Chinese medicine, is to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain general health.
How does moxibustion work? Does it hurt?
There are two types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. In direct a small, cone-shaped amount of moxa is placed on top of an acupuncture point and burned. This type is further categorized into two types: scarring and non-scarring. With scarring the moxa is placed on a point, ignited, and allowed to remain onto the point until it burns out completely. This may lead to localized scarring, blisters and scarring after healing. With non-scarring the moxa is placed on the point and lit, but is extinguished or removed before it burns the skin. The patient will experience a pleasant heating sensation that penetrates deep into the skin, but should not experience any pain, blistering or scarring unless the moxa is left in place for too long.
Indirect moxibustion is currently the more popular form of care because there is a much lower risk of pain or burning. In indirect a practitioner lights one end of a moxa stick, roughly the shape and size of a cigar, and holds it close to the area being treated for several minutes until the area turns red. Another form of indirect moxibustion uses both acupuncture needles and moxa. A needle is inserted into an acupoint and retained. The tip of the needle is then wrapped in moxa and ignited, generating heat to the point and the surrounding area. After the desired effect is achieved, the moxa is extinguished and the needle(s) removed.
What is moxibustion used for?
In traditional Chinese medicine, moxibustion is used on people who have a cold or stagnant condition. The burning of moxa is believed to expel cold and warm the meridians, which leads to smoother flow of blood and qi. In Western medicine, moxibustion has successfully been used to turn breech babies into a normal head-down position prior to childbirth. A landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 found that up to 75% of women suffering from breech presentations before childbirth had fetuses that rotated to the normal position after receiving moxibustion at an acupuncture point on the Bladder meridian. Other studies have shown that it increases the movement of the fetus in pregnant women, and may reduce the symptoms of menstrual cramps when used in conjunction with traditional acupuncture.
Why do acupuncturists use mugwort? Why not use some other herb?
Mugwort, also known as artemesia vulgarisor ai ye in Chinese, has a long history of use in folk medicine. Research has shown that it acts as an emmenagogue that is, an agent that increases blood circulation to the pelvic area and uterus and stimulates menstruation. This could explain its use in treating breech births and menstrual cramps.
Are there any precautions I should be aware of?
Although moxibustion has been safely used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, it is not for everyone. Because it is used specifically for patients suffering from cold or stagnant constitutions, it should not be used on anyone diagnosed with too much heat. Burning moxa also produces a great deal of smoke and a pungent odor. Patients with respiratory problems may request that their practitioner use smokeless moxa sticks as an alternative.
Moxibustion as an alternative therapy that involves burning herbs and applying the resulting heat to specific points on the body. A technique used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Tibetan medicine, moxibustion is typically administered in conjunction with acupuncture.
Uses for Moxibustion
According to alternative medicine practitioners, the heat generated during moxibustion helps increase the flow of vital energy (also known as “qi” or “chi”) throughout the body via certain pathways (known as “meridians“). In traditional Chinese medicine, stimulating the flow of chi is considered essential to achieving health and wellness. In fact, physical and mental health problems are thought to develop (in part) as a result of blockages in the flow of chi.
Alternative medicine proponents claim that moxibustion can help treat the following health problems:
- Back pain
- Muscle stiffness
- Menstrual cramps
- Digestive problems
What Does It Involve?
There are two main types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. The technique most commonly used today, indirect often involves burning moxa (a substance created from dried leaves of the herbs mugwort or wormwood) on top of the acupuncture needle. In some cases, however, practitioners may set the burning moxa over a layer of ginger, garlic, or salt placed on the patient’s skin. Other techniques include applying heat to acupuncture points from an electrical source, as well as holding the burning moxa above the skin for several minutes.
In direct the burning moxa is placed directly on the skin. Since this technique can cause pain and scarring, direct moxibustion is no longer used very often.
To date, few studies have tested the safety and effectiveness of moxibustion in the treatment of any health condition. Here’s a look at some of the evidence related to it:
In a 2009 study of 51 postmenopausal women, researchers found that 14 sessions of moxibustion reduced the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
Available scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of moxibustion in the treatment of ulcerative colitis, according to a research review published in 2010. The review’s authors analyzed five clinical trials and determined that moxibustion did show some benefits for people with ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease). However, all of the reviewed studies were found to be of low quality.
Moxibustion is often touted as a means of decreasing risk of a breech birth. But in a report published in 2005, scientists found insufficient evidence to support the use of moxibustion in correcting a breech presentation. The report’s authors sized up three clinical trials (involving a total of 597 women) and concluded that more research is needed before it can be recommended to women looking to avoid a breech birth. However, the report did find that it may reduce the need for certain medical procedures typically used to correct a breech presentation.
Moxibustion is considered unsafe for people with diabetes. What’s more, oils from mugwort and wormwood may cause toxic reactions when taken internally.
If you’re considering the use of moxibustion for any type of health condition, make sure to consult your doctor before undergoing treatment. It’s especially important to talk to your doctor if you’re considering its use while pregnant.