You probably have encountered a quaint form of treatment called moxibustion if you’ve spent a bit of time researching Chinese medicine. Unlike Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, moxibustion doesn’t get much media coverage; nonetheless, this incredibly soothing technique does offer a lot of health benefits – more so if used as a complementary therapy to acupuncture.
If you’re suffering from nagging health problems, it would be worth your while to find a clinic that offers moxibustion. Around 100 years before the Common Era (BCE), a Chinese medical document called the Wang Di Nei Jing Ling Shu was written. It states that “Illness that could not be treated with acupuncture can be treated with moxibustion.” These days, moxibustion is widely used as a way to help people who or are too sensitive to acupuncture or drugs or have had no success with such modalities.
This article is meant to give you a better understanding of what moxibustion is all about as well as its uses to help you make more informed decisions regarding your health care.
What is Moxibustion?
Chinese medicine practitioners have many choices when it comes to the various forms of moxibustion at their disposal and the type of “moxa” that can be used to treat their patients. As a healing practice, moxibustion is as ancient as acupuncture itself; actually, the Chinese word shenjiu means acupuncture and directly refers to this technique. It is believed that the Chinese have been using moxibustion for over 2,500 years, although there is indication that simpler forms of moxibustion actually antedate acupuncture.
As with all traditional Chinese modalities, moxibustion is designed is to restore balance in the body and guarantee a consistent and smooth flow of vital energy called chi within the body. In moxibustion, balance is attained by burning dried mugwort or an herbal plant called moxa (ai ye in Chinese herbal medicine) directly or proximate on the skin. This potent medicinal plant has a long history of use both in the West and the East. In America, it is probably best known for its close relationship to the “witches” of Medieval Europe. This is due to its repeated use in folk medicine, specifically for the treatment of itchy skin, anxiety, menstrual disorders, and abdominal pain.
From the standpoint of Western medicine, moxa is considered a moderate stimulant, a natural diuretic, and an emmenagogue. The last means that it can boost blood circulation to the uterus and the pelvic region, which is the reason it is commonly used to treat scanty (absent or light) menstruation and uterine cramps. It is also be used to turn breech babies.
Moxibustion can help move stagnated, deficient, or sluggish chi via therapeutic heat especially when performed by a skilled Chinese medicine practitioner. In so doing, it alleviates chronic stagnation and bolsters the healing effects of acupuncture.
Different Forms of Moxibustion
There are two ways practitioners administer moxibustion therapy: through direct or indirect moxibustion. Both approaches have their own drawbacks and benefits, and one may discover that the treatment given will be based on the preference of the patient and on the style of the practitioner.
Direct moxibustion involves extremely close or direct heat contact with the skin. The practitioner will burn an incense stick to light the moxa “wool” while the patient lies in a relaxing position on the acupuncture table. The flaming moxa wool provides warmth on the selected acupoints, selected based on the condition of the patient and other personal qualities.
It’s common for Chinese medicine practitioners in the US to use indirect moxibustion due to the fact that it is a much safer technique than direct moxibustion. Indirect moxibustion is typically carried out in one of two different ways. One way is for the practitioner to hold the moxa stick’s smoking end very near the skin until the acupoint is warm enough. This indicates that vital fluids and blood have been coursed along the corresponding meridians, which leads to the healing of the patient’s ailments. A lot of clinics today use smokeless slower-burning moxa sticks that are ideal for people with asthma or who are sensitive to smoke. Indirect moxibustion can also be administered as a tiger warmer or using something as a buffer between the skin and the stick like slices of garlic or ginger, aconite or salt. The heat from this technique deeply penetrates the body.
One other indirect method is to wrap smaller moxa balls on top of acupuncture needles and light them until smoking. The heat travels down the body of the needle and into the acupuncture point, augmenting the healing effects of the therapy. In a session, a moxa wool ball is usually placed on just one or two of the needles. Patients usually experience a soothing and warm feeling during and even after acu-moxibustion treatment.
How does moxibustion work?
There is still no clear explanation how moxibustion really works. Some believe that it works the same way as other heat-based treatments like warming creams, heat packs, hot tubs, and saunas. While a lot of Westerners are familiar with these treatments for localized pain, in Chinese medicine, heat is a major factor for alleviating whole-body and more systemic complaints.
Who can be treated with moxibustion?
As yang or fire is the most important factor in moxibustion, the treatment is most often used to eliminate yin or cold stagnation and the symptoms associated with it. From a Western medicine perspective, common problems that are related to cold stagnation include:
- Low mood and depression
- Arthritis and joint pain
- Weak immunity
- Fluid retention
- Cold hypersensitivity
- Weak digestion
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Slowly but surely, Western medical research has validated the efficacy of moxibustion in treating those aforementioned ailments. A placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that moxibustion was extremely helpful in the treatment of osteoarthritis. The researchers wrote the following at the end of the study:
Moxibustion therapy is inexpensive, easy to administer, and simple. It also is an easily replicable treatment than acupuncture, which is subject to changes caused by the various needling methods of various practitioners. The results indicate that traditional moxibustion is an easy-to-use, effective, and safe therapy that can serve as an adjunct to conventional medicine for improving function and relieving pain in patients suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee.
Scientists in another unrelated study performed indirect moxibustion on a couple of acupuncture points in 42 patients suffering from autoimmune hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis). They observed that combined with prescription drugs, the group given moxa therapies experienced better thyroid function than the group treated with medications only.
For women, one of the greatest and most intriguing benefits of moxibustion is its ability to turn breech babies (babies who are upside down at term). Almost all (90 percent) of breech babies are birthed via cesarean section. Naturally, most women would prefer a natural birth. New research reveals that when combined with acupuncture and/or postural techniques, moxibustion can help turn babies over in a manner they are in a less dangerous position at birth. This is perhaps due to the ability of moxibustion to stimulate uterine contractions which can turn breech babies gently around.
To date, the therapeutic qualities of moxibustion, like acupuncture, have been supported by a fair amount of clinical research. With a better understanding of this ancient healing art, further studies will soon be looking into its mechanisms and uses.
For people who have had zero success with other treatments, moxibustion can be the answer to their predicament. Therefore, for those still suffering from a different number of health issues, moxibustion is a highly suggested option after they’ve tried both alternative and mainstream therapies. Some practitioners provide their patients instructions on how to perform moxibustion on themselves. As with most traditional Chinese treatments, sustained and consistent application is vital.