Moxibustion: The Magical Art of Burning Mugwort
As a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, the most frequent question I get from the people I treat for the first time is
What is this this moxa/moxibustion?
The term moxa comes from a Japanese word that translates as burning herb. Basically, moxibustion is heat therapy by burning herbs and it is an intrinsic part of traditional Chinese medicine.
Across the ages, application of heat has proven to be one of the most effective forms of treatment devised by humans. Some cultures enjoyed the blessings of thermal waters, others applied hot stones to painful areas, yet others used the power of herbs to alleviate pain and would burn them to heal wounds.
Even to this day we make use of warm patches and warm cushions to alleviate pain and discomfort, not to mention the wonderful benefits of a nice warm bath after a long day.
Contemporary Western medicine uses cauterisation procedures, which imply burning tissues in order to remove unwanted elements and sterilise a certain area.
Cauterisation triggers a very efficient and fast emergency response from the immune system. No other pathogen will create such intense and quick reaction in the body than burning fire. By creating a very small, controlled crisis, cauterisation will awaken a sluggish and dormant immune system to respond to the “emergency” call. And, once awakened, it will also deal with any other intruder found in its way.
When talking about traditional Chinese medicine, we need to mention the fact that TCM will never use ice as therapy. Cold is regarded as one of the External Devils or Pathogens.
One will find plenty of TCM texts mentioning therapies and techniques that can be used to expel Cold, but never one therapy or technique to put Cold back as means of health preservation or health restoration.
Moxibustion as part of traditional Chinese medicine
The Chinese character for Acupuncture is a symbol which can be translated as acupuncture-moxibustion, which means that the two techniques, acupuncture and moxibustion complement each other or stem from the same medical branch. Some written TCM texts claim that acupuncture needles have the ability to transfer and disperse energy when placed in the acupoints, while acu-moxa has the ability to awaken the energy in the acupoints.
One image that pops into my mind when I try to explain to somebody the difference between acupuncture, acupressure and acumoxa involves a sleeping dragon – the acupoint. Acupuncture awakens this dragon by poking a spear into her back, acupressure shakes her awake, while acumoxa not only awakens the dragon, but puts the fire back into the dragon’s breath.
To Mugwort or Not To Mugwort
Nowadays, there are several means to perform moxibustion, acumoxa and heat therapy.
Traditionally, acumoxa and moxibustion have been performed by burning Ai Ye, aka Artemisia argyi, aka Mugwort, a herb known for its special properties in numerous cultures.
The Artemisia family contains more than 200 different plants, all of them used in ancient traditional and herbal medicines for their properties.
In TCM, Mugwort is the main herb to be processed for acumoxa and moxibustion. However, TCM also uses Artemisia absinthium, aka Wormwood to make a vast array of herbal remedies: teas, infusions, herbal formulas, cooking herbs, essential oils, poultices, ointments, skin patches and incense. Additionally, since the two herbs have the property of repelling insects and pests, they are also placed above or around the front door, to protect the homes from insects, but also from unwanted guests.
In the ideal situation, the TCM practitioner is able to use mugwort moxa in their treatment premises. However, modern practices have limited the use of mugwort as a means of performing acumoxa and moxibustion. The main “complaints” come from the fire-fighter brigade (burnt mugwort produces smoke), but also from the clients (some are sensitive to smoke and also the smell), sometimes also from the other tenants in the building.
Smokeless versions of acumoxa and moxibustion make use of specially treated charcoal, which produces about the same amount and intensity of heat but less smell and virtually zero smoke,
Another variant are the TDP infrared lamps with mineral plates. These have been designed by the Chinese as a more modern alternative to mugwort and they have become quite popular among the practitioners and clients alike. In fact, it is very seldom one will walk into a TCM treatment room and not find one lamp waiting there to be used.
However, no matter how modern or safe the more modern approaches might be, they cannot replicate the original murwort plant. Apart from the unique burning temperature and burning time, mugwort contains specific essential oils and other herbal components that the more modern instruments have yet failed to replicate. The fact that the ancient practitioners chose mugwort as herb of choice for this therapy means that there is actually no real substitute for it.
Ways to do moxa therapy
There are several ways in which moxa therapy can be included in TCM treatment sessions. Depending on the client’s complaint, the practitioner will choose the best form of moxibustion therapy.
Acumoxa focuses on applying moxa on acupoints. In this case, the moxa cones are either attached to the acupuncture needle that is being inserted in the acupoint, or the moxa is used on its own. Acumoxa uses the same acupoints as acupuncture and acupressure, only the means to manipulate the Qi at the point is the moxa cone. The heat of the moxa will penetrate the acupoint and will activate the desired response for the specific treatment.
Acumoxa can be direct or indirect. In the case of direct moxibustion performed on an acupoint, a small amount of mugwort is rolled in a small cone or thread and it is placed directly in contact with the skin. The practitioner then sets the mugwort cone on fire and lets it burn all the way down. This type of moxibustion will leave a burn mark and a small scar. The practitioner will not go back to that specific acupoint until the scar has completely healed. This type of practice, called scarring or marking direct moxibustion, is very popular in the countries that created this type of traditional medicine (China, Japan, Korea, etc), but very rare in the Western countries.
The most performed direct acumoxa practice in the West is called non-scarring or non-marking direct moxibution. In this case, the small burning moxa cone or thread is left in place just until the client alerts the practitioner that they can feel the discomfort caused by the heat of the burning moxa cone. The burning ashes are then quickly removed from the skin before they can cause any scars or marks.
Indirect acumoxa will use a form of medium between the skin and the burning moxa cone or thread. Traditional mediums are ginger or garlic slices or paste and salt in the case of the navel. More modern approaches will place readymade moxa cones on a cardboard base. Depending on the make, the base will enable the mugwort smoke to reach the skin or not.
Moxibustion can also be used for large areas of the body. In this case, the practitioner focuses more on the overall painful area and less on the acupoints. Because direct moxa will cause a large scar tissue, this procedure is only performed indirectly. The practitioner will light up a mugwort or charcoal roll and just place it in the close vicinity of the skin, until the client can feel the area turning hot. This kind of indirect moxibustion is also ideal for the TDP infrared heat lamp with a mineral plate, or more traditional instruments such as copper rollers.
The effect of the moxa treatments can be enhanced by means of mugwort ointments and skin patches, as well as other warming pads. However, they should be used with caution and only if the practitioner recommends them, as they can scald the skin.
What are the benefits of moxibustion therapy?
So now, after we’ve seen what moxa therapy is and how it can be performed, the remaining question is why. Why do so many people from so many countries, like China, Japan and Korea, willingly submit themselves to such procedures that will burn their skin and leave scars?
Mugwort is said to have the following pharmaceutical properties:
- sedative and hypnotic
Traditional Chinese medicine uses mugwort to:
- warm the channels (acupoint meridians and collaterals)
- stop bleeding
- disperse Cold
- calm pain
- dispel Dampness
Cultivation of Health
If you start digging a well when you’re already thirsty, you are too late.
As any other form of therapy in the traditional Chinese medicine, moxa therapy is first and foremost used for cultivation of health. Many of the moxa treatment protocols have been originally designed to help the body stay healthy when it was still healthy.
People in China, Korea and Japan will still perform moxa treatments regularly as part of cultivation of health, especially during the seasons most affected by Cold and Dampness: Spring and Autumn.
Regular moxa sessions will improve overall health and vitality and moxa is highly recommended especially for people over 40. In fact, certain moxibustionists will make their students perform moxa on themselves regularly as a regimen for good health and vitality. In the older days, young men were encouraged to marry young ladies with moxa scar marks, as a sign that these ladies were taking good care of their health and well-being.
The moxa properties make it the ideal choice when treating many complaints caused by Cold, Dampness and Stagnation:Aches and pains
Aches and pains
- Frozen shoulder
- Knee pain
- Back pain
- Trigeminal neuralgia
Lung and respiratory conditions with Phlegm or mucus
- Common cold
Sexual and reproductive conditions
- Infertility (in TCM it is related to a Cold Uterus or Testes)
- Painful menstruation
- Erectile dysfunctions
- Breech presentation
How long a session and how many sessions?
Depending on the nature of the session – cultivation of health or health restoration, moxa treatment protocols start from a minimum of five sessions, from once a week for the cultivation of health to every fortnight or every month and they last very little in time (max 30 min).
Depending on the nature of the complaint, the treatments can be combined with acupuncture, acupressure, medical massage or cupping. In this case, the sessions may last up to one hour.
!!! Caveat !!!
Like any other form of TCM treatment, moxibustion has its precautions and contraindications and only a qualified TCM practitioner will be able to determine whether you would benefit from this therapy or not.
All forms of moxibustion will leave your skin red and sometimes blistered, much like after spending a whole day in the summer at the beach. Your practitioner will advise on the specific after-care.
Please do not perform heat therapy or moxa on yourself or other people! Moxibustion is not a universal solution to all your aches and pains and it can cause a lot of damage to your health if practiced incorrectly.