The Healing Power of Moxa

Posted by Kim
August 22, 2021

Moxibustion is a method of heating specific acupuncture points on the body by burning an herb material close to the skin.

Moxibustion is a technique that can be used alone or in combination with acupuncture – the Chinese character for acupuncture means “acupuncture-moxibustion.”

What is Moxa made of? 

The herb material used is mugwort an invasive weed, which grows in many climates, including Western North Carolina. Mugwort has a long history of use in folk medicine. It is believed that the Romans planted mugwort by roadsides to make it available to travellers to put in their shoes to relieve aching feet and protect them from exhaustion. Maybe this is because of its ability to enhance the movement of qi and blood.

Mugwort gets its botanical name from the Greek moon goddess Artemis, a patron of women, and is a wonderful herb for gynaecological conditions. In Chinese Herbal Medicine it is used to treat heavy menstrual bleeding and uterine bleeding and to increase blood circulation to the pelvic area to treat menstrual pain. Moxibustion (applying heat near the skin) has successfully been used to turn breech babies into a normal head-down position before childbirth.

Any type of heat applied to the body can increase the flow of qi and blood. Heat lamps, heating pads, or warming liniments can give a similar effect to moxibustion. But the heat combined with the powerful healing properties of mugwort gives moxibustion a proven advantage.

Mugwort is used because of its acrid, spicy odour which makes it able to travel through all of the meridians, regulate qi and blood, and expel cold. One of mugwort’s active components, borneol, is commonly used in topical therapies for its analgesic effects. Other explanations for the use of mugwort, as opposed to some other herb material, is that it grows easily in many places, is inexpensive, and burns slowly.

What is moxibustion used for?

Moxibustion can be used to prevent diseases and maintain health as part of tonification treatments to help strengthen the organs and immune system. It warms the meridians and expels cold. It can be used to promote circulation over areas of chronic pain or muscle tension. 

It is especially used for pain that is worse with exposure to cold or damp weather, as with some types of arthritis pain. When applied to acupuncture points that strengthen and lift the qi, moxibustion can boost the immune system and help with fatigue, digestive issues, and much more.

Moxibustion is used on people who have a cold or stagnant condition. The practice expels cold and warms the meridians, which leads to smoother flow of blood and qi. In Western medicine, moxibustion has been used to turn breech babies into a normal head-down position prior to childbirth.

What else do people use it for?

People use moxibustion for a range of other issues, including:

  • gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhoea, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation
  • menstrual cramps
  • pain, including pain from arthritis, joint or muscle pain, and chronic pain
  • cancer-related nausea
  • urinary incontinence
  • fertility
  • asthma symptoms
  • eczema
  • fatigue
  • cold and flu prevention
  • ulcerative colitis
  • cancer
  • stroke rehabilitation
  • high blood pressure
  • pain
  • breech presentation

How Does Moxibustion in Acupuncture Work?

There are two types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. In direct moxibustion, a small, cone-shaped amount of moxa is placed on top of an acupuncture point and burned. Broken down further, direct moxibustion can be scarring or non-scarring. In scarring moxibustion the moxa burns on the acupuncture point until it does out completely. In non-scarring moxibustion, the moxa is placed on the point and lit, but is extinguished or removed before it burns the skin.

Patients feel 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.

The more popular form of moxibustion is the indirect type because it comes with a lower risk for pain or burning. In indirect moxibustion, an acupuncture practitioner lights one end of a moxa stick and holds it close to the treatment area for a few 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, which creates heat in the point and the surrounding area. Once the person experiences relief, the moxa is extinguished and the needle is taken out.

What can I expect to feel?

It is not uncommon for patients receiving moxibustion to report a sudden flooding of warmth that quickly radiates along a specific pathway (usually corresponding with the jing luo channel that is being treated) away from the site of application. This is a good result, as it indicates the arrival of the Qi and signals that the flow of Qi and xue has been freed in the channel.

How often should I be treated?

Because your treatment plan is completely unique, the same is true of the recommended frequency of sessions. Your practitioner will offer guidance based on your condition, your goals, and how you respond to your sessions. 

We think it is important to note that, because these treatments aim to retrain your body’s natural healing mechanisms, your sessions do build on each other. Pregnant patients might benefit most from frequent sessions. If you are seeking treatment for an acute injury or illness, your practitioner might recommend that you come in weekly for a brief period of time.

If your goal is to manage a chronic condition, a longer term plan could be more ideal. Most patients begin to feel improvement after their first treatment, but some take two or three sessions to experience real change. Effects tend to become longer lasting over time.

If you choose to continue treatments, your practitioner will work with you to formulate a plan that fits your goals, preferences, and schedule. Ultimately, we are here to support your individual needs.

What should I do before and after?

To make the most of your moxa session, we recommend that you wear loose-fitting clothing, drink plenty of water, have a light snack, and refrain from brushing or scraping your tongue before arrival. When possible, avoid alcohol, stimulants, and other drugs prior to your appointment—but do not stop taking prescribed medications without speaking to your doctor. We find it beneficial to arrive a few minutes early so you can take some deep breaths and relax (and turn off your phone!) before getting started.

After your appointment, take your time getting up, and allow yourself to move slowly as you reintegrate into the outside world. To support continued healing, we recommend that you carve out some time to rest, and avoid overexerting yourself with strenuous labor or vigorous exercise—especially if you are new to your treatments.

Walking, stretching, and yoga are great options for post-appointment activity. Try to avoid wind, swimming or showering, and cold food and drinks for a few hours after your appointment. Abstaining from alcohol for the rest of the day (or several days) will assist your body’s natural healing process. Most importantly, keep yourself hydrated and warm!

During and after your treatment, you might experience an increase in energy or you might be very relaxed and sleepy. You also might feel a release of emotions and even to shed some tears. This is all a completely normal and healthy part of your body’s processing and healing. In Chinese medicine, we believe that your emotions are held in your blood. And our aim during treatment is to get your blood and energy flowing.

Are there any precautions I should be aware of?

Moxibustion, when performed by an experienced practitioner, is a completely safe treatment for most people. Side effects are rare, but can include dizziness, coughing, allergic reaction, skin irritation, blisters, or fetal harm. In order to ensure that your treatment is safe, be sure to communicate with your practitioner about any allergies, sensitivities, skin conditions, medical conditions, or pregnancy.

If you are unsure about the safety of moxibustion or if you are hoping to remedy a specific medical condition with this treatment, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor first. Though it has many benefits, moxibustion should not be considered a replacement for other medical care.

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.

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About Kimberley

Kimberley, Acupuncturist and Clinic Director at Life + Lemons, is a registered TCM (Traditional Chinese Medical) Acupuncturist, passionate about helping women reclaim their feminine edge. After graduating with a First Class Honors in York, she has undertaken specialist training in the area of pain management, natural conception, IVF support, menopause + pelvic pain (endometriosis/dysmenorrhea).


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