Moxibustion, a traditional Chinese therapy that has been used throughout Asia for thousands of years, involves burning mugwort to facilitate healing. The term moxibustion is derived from the Japanese word “mogusa” meaning herb (mugwort) and the Latin word “bustion” meaning burning. It is also interesting that the actual Chinese character for acupuncture, translated literally means “acupuncture-moxibustion.” Moxibustion is done to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain general health. In traditional Chinese medicine moxibustion is used on people who have a cold or stagnant condition. The burning of mugwort or moxa is believed to expel cold and warm the meridians, which leads to smoother flow of blood and qi.
Mugwort, also known as ai ye in Chinese, has a long history of use. Research has shown that it acts as an emmenagogue, which is an herb that increases blood circulation in the pelvic region and stimulates menstruation; therefore mugwort has been used in treating breech births and menstrual cramps. A landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 found that up to 75% of women successfully corrected the breech position by stimulating the bladder meridian with moxibustion.
When moxibustion is preformed there are two types, indirect and direct. Indirect moxibustion is currently the more popular form of care because there is a much lower risk of pain or burning. It involves a mugwort or moxa stick which is comparable to the shape and size of a cigar. The practitioner lights one end of the stick and holds it close to the area being treated for several minutes until the area turns red. Another form of indirect moxibustion uses both acupuncture needles and mugwort. A needle is inserted into an acupoint; the tip of the needle is wrapped in mugwort and lit, generating heat to the point and the surrounding area. After the treatment is completed, the mugwort is extinguished and the needle is removed.
In direct moxibustion, a small, cone-shaped amount of mugwort is placed on top of an acupuncture point and burned. This type of moxibustion is further categorized into two types: scarring and non-scarring. With scarring moxibustion, the mugwort is placed on a point, ignited, and allowed to remain on the point until it burns out completely. This is the traditional technique and is considered to be very therapeutic. The effectiveness of direct moxibustion on immune function has been reported as early as 1927 by Dr. Shimetaro Hara, at the Kyushu University in Japan. However, presently direct moxibustion is not performed routinely outside of Japan, because it may lead to blisters and localized scaring. In an attempt to prevent skin damage, some acupuncturists practice non-scarring moxibustion. This can be done by placing a slice of ginger or topical paste between the skin and the burning mugwort. The effect from this type of moxibustion should not be considered the same as the scarring direct moxibustion since the main effect of direct moxibustion is caused by the actual damage to the skin which is believed to stimulate the healing reaction. Another form of non-scarring moxibustion involves placing the mugwort on the acupuncture point and lighting it, but the mugwort is extinguished or removed before it burns the skin. With non-scarring moxibustion the patient will experience a pleasant warm sensation that is felt deep within the skin, but should not experience any pain, blistering or scarring unless the mugwort is left in place for too long.
Moxibustion is used specifically for patients suffering from cold or stagnant constitutions; therefore it should not be used on anyone who has been diagnosed with too much heat. Burning mugwort can also produce a large amount of smoke and an intense odor therefore patients with respiratory problems may request that their practitioner use smokeless moxa sticks as an alternative.