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Moxibustion was a principal stand-alone treatment in ancient China, and it continues to be used today to treat a variety of conditions. Often applied in combination with acupuncture, the therapy applies external heat either directly on or over acupuncture points. Burning moxa to warm acupuncture points promotes circulation in the body’s meridians, warms and increases flow in the channels, and also nourishes and clears blockage in the meridians due to lodged cold. Moxibustion has many applications, but is commonly known in the acupuncture clinic for relieving the pain of osteoarthritis, postoperative pain, and in turning breech baby presentations.

The History of Moxibustion

Moxibustion is such an integral part of Classical Chinese medicine that it may have predated the systematic organization of Chinese medicine’s origins of the meridians and their use in treating illness and restoring balance. It is believed that moxibustion developed as a folk remedy after fire-making was mastered and people noticed that the warmth of the fire provided comfort and an alleviation of pain. Texts dating back to the Qin and Han dynasties are the earliest mention of moxibustion. These texts also reference moxibustion’s methods, use and contraindications.

What Happens During a Moxibustion Treatment?

There are multiple methods of moxibustion, and the one that is chosen depends on both the practitioner’s preference and the patient. Most frequently an indirect moxa stick is held close to the surface of the skin near to a chosen acupuncture point. The moxa is like a large incense stick, and once lit and held close to an acupuncture point, it emits heat to the prescribed area. While performing the warming technique, the practitioner pays close attention to the amount of heat or redness the area is experiencing. When the patient reports the area starting to feel uncomfortably warm, the practitioner will either move the moxa stick farther away from the skin or warm the next point in the patient’s treatment. A variation of indirect moxibustion features the moxa wool being rolled into a small ball and then delicately placed on top of an acupuncture needle. When the moxa wool is ignited it creates a gentle heat that is transmitted through the acupuncture needle and into the acupuncture point.  This is a very effective way to treat many deficient, deep pain or cold conditions.

By contrast, there is the use of direct moxibustion. Using direct moxibustion places a small cone or thread-shaped amount of moxa on the skin with a cream, ginger or salt barrier. This also provides warmth but with a bit more precision and strength than indirect moxibustion. 

What Does Moxibustion Feel Like?

Whether applied directly or indirectly, moxibustion provides a warm, pleasant sensation both superficially and deeper within the body. As the sense of warmth fades from the area where the heat has been applied, it is an indication that flow has been increased in the channel being treated and that healing has commenced. 

What Material Is Burned During Moxibustion

Today the moxa that is burned is almost always processed from Chinese mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris). Its leaves are harvested and aged for 3-5 years to be used to make moxibustion wool. They are ground to break down their fibrous qualities, revealing a fluffy, cottony wool-like material. This form of moxa is used for direct and on-needle techniques. Moxa sticks for indirect techniques are often hard, compressed versions of the herb, or charred and compressed into mugwort sticks. 

Mugwort is one of many plants from the family Artemisia which have long been used in folk medicine, all over the world. It is believed that the Romans planted mugwort by roadsides to make it available for travelers and legionnaires to relieve aching feet and protect them from exhaustion. Based on modern use, we can speculate that this might be due to the ability of mugwort to move blood and have an analgesic effect in the body. 

Which Conditions Are Helped By Moxibustion?

Moxibustion is probably best known for its actions in correcting the breech presentation in late-term pregnancies. It has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PMS, to relieve pain from arthritis, and to reduce the symptoms of chronic fatigue and inflammatory bowel syndrome

In addition to providing relief of illness, the practice of daily at-home moxibustion is common in many cultures, and is said to bolster immunity and overall wellness

Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice moxibustion, acupuncture and Chinese Medicine since 2001, and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Her knowledge and understanding of moxibustion and its appropriate use assure patients of the highest level of care and professionalism.

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