Moxibustion or moxa is a therapeutic healing technique originating in ancient China that is used in many modern acupuncture clinics today. The practice involves burning medicinal herbs over specific acupuncture points or areas of pain to warm and heal a specific condition. We use it for a variety of health concerns including arthritis, reproductive issues, digestive disorders, or even in turning a breech baby.
While continuing to play an important role in China, Japan, and Korea, moxibustion hasn't gained as much popularity with practitioners in the United States. And not because they don't consider it a valuable tool, but mainly because... well because of the smell.
The herb harvested and aged for the use of moxibustion comes from the mugwort plant (artemisia vulgaris) which is an annoying weed for gardeners, but a wonderful plant if you're cultivating it for medicinal purposes. When it is burned for therapeutic use, it gives off a strong aromatic odor similar to that of burning sage or what many people mistake for marijuana. So you can imagine why many practitioners leave it out of their practice space. It could be especially problematic for an acupuncturist who shares an office with other practitioners or for those who don't have particularly good ventilation systems. Many acupuncturists are sensitive to the smoke and scent of moxa themselves.
I personally love using moxa, but I also share my space with people who practice different forms of therapy, so I have to find a balance that works for me, my patients, and everyone in the building. I often use small doses of moxa in the office or opt for the non-smoky form and send my patients home with some for self care. I'm lucky to share space with people who don't mind my weird stuff.
Moxa comes in many shapes and forms, and the type your acupuncturist chooses is based on what area of the body they're treating, what they're trying to accomplish, or their personal preference and style. And of course, what their work space allows.
Common Forms and Methods using Moxibustion
- Moxa Stick: Moxa is a wool-like substance which can be rolled into something resembling a cigar. Once the end is lit, it can be burned an inch or so over a large area or near a specific acupuncture point. Moxa sticks come in smoky or non-smoky forms and are usually what you'll take home if you've been prescribed moxa from your acupuncturist.
- Thread: Tiny threads of moxa can be used on acupuncture points or places on the body which we wouldn't stick a needle, such as in a tendon or bony surface. We typically use an ointment or cream to separate the thread from the skin and the thread is lit using an incense stick. Instead of warming an area, the heat from thread moxa penetrates a direct location.
- Direct: Pure, wool-like moxa can be shaped into a cone and placed on specific acupuncture points. It is usually burnt about 2/3 down before being removed. It should have a nice warming effect without getting too hot.
- Liquid: Some companies have made moxa into a liquid which can be used over an area of the body and placed under a heat lamp to get the warming effect. A lot of practitioners use this if they can't burn moxa in their office.
- Needle: Pure moxa will be rolled into a ball and placed on the end of an acupuncture needle and burned. The heat from the moxa warms the surface of the skin and also transfers through the needle deeper into an acupuncture point. This is my favorite!
Benefits of Moxibustion:
- Warms the Channels: According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) cold can invade the body and become lodged within acupuncture channels which run throughout it. This can result in pain in a certain area which often will feel worse in cold weather and feel better with the application of heat. For instance, some kinds of arthritis are "cold type" and are felt more intensely in the winter months. Moxa is particularly useful in these cases.
- Promotes Circulation of Qi & Blood: Moxa is warming and moving. It helps to promote movement of blood and qi so it is particularly good for pain, which occurs when qi or blood stagnate. It has been especially popular in gynecology for menstrual cramps and you can use it to heal bruises more quickly.
- Stimulates Acupuncture Points: We also use moxa to stimulate specific points such as the point on the little toe which helps to turn a breech baby. Some points on the body are contraindicated for needling such as the point on the umbilicus which is helpful for some digestive disorders. It is a common practice to place a cone of direct moxa on a piece of ginger or a pile of salt on this point. Can't and wouldn't stick a needle there. Ouch! But moxa? Yes please!
- Builds Qi & Blood: Moxa therapy has been shown to increase immune function, specifically increase white blood cell counts, anti-inflammatory cytokines & anti-body production. In addition to improving your immunity and helping you when you are feeling run down, it has proven to be particularly helpful in treating illnesses where the immune system is compromised and can help people who are prone to getting sick. In TCM, this loosely translates to building qi and blood; two of the main substances essential for life and vitality.
In addition to its health benefits, my patients find the burning of moxa to be extremely comforting. Its warmth and scent create a feeling of deep relaxation in the treatment room. When I use it in my practice or at home, I am always brought back to my first days of learning Eastern Medicine where my classmates and I were excited about receiving new knowledge about ancient traditions. We learned all the different ways of applying moxa and burned it until it permeated our clothes and hair. I definitely received a few side glances while riding the bus home from class.
So if you ever walk into an acupuncture clinic and get a whiff of something and wonder, "what the heck kind of herbs are being used here," it's moxa!