Moxibustion - What Is It?

Written by: Kevin Cash



Time to read 7 min

Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy originating from traditional Chinese medicine that has gained a following for its therapeutic benefits. The process can look scary because moxa wool is burning so closely to the skin or even on it.

That same heat is believed to increase blood circulation and the flow of Qi to treat pain relief and a range of health issues.

This article explores how moxibustion works, health uses today, and the potential benefits for various health conditions. We'll also cover the safety considerations and practitioners who can perform moxibustion.

Origin of Moxibustion

Woman getting moxibustion on the lower back

Moxibustion is an external treatment in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with over 2500 years of history.

TCM practitioners and acupuncturists burn moxa wool to heat specific pressure points on the body. This wool is made from dried Chinese mugwort leaves, known scientifically as Artemisia argyi or A. vulgaris.

In fact, mugwort is a flowering plant and used in food globally. German, Japanese, and Korean cultures use mugwort in different dishes, including soups and desserts.

The earliest records of moxibustion being used are during the pre-Qin dynasty in China in 581 B.C.

Continued records in the Han dynasty showed its use to treat complex diseases. Since then, moxibustion has become more widely used in China. There were research papers throughout the 20th century promoting its use for up to 364 types of diseases.

How Does Moxibustion Work?

Moxibustion works by burning a moxa cone or stick over specific points on the body to improve energy and blood flow. The moxa is made from ground mugwort leaves.

There are two main methods used for moxibustion and based on skin contact:

  • Direct Moxibustion: A small pile of moxa is placed on the skin at the treatment point and ignited. The moxa burns slowly as the skin reddens. However, direct moxibustion can lead to scarring or blistering, so it's not advised for sensitive areas like the face, breasts, genitals, or major tendons.

  • Indirect Moxibustion: This method is more common and safer since there's no direct skin contact. The practitioner holds a burning moxa stick or cone about an inch or two above the skin. The moxa could also be placed on an acupuncture needle while the needle is in. That short distance allows the heat to still penetrate without direct contact.

    Different methods include adding an insulating layer of salt or garlic between the moxa and the skin. Indirect moxibustion can also involve placing moxa on acupuncture needles or using a "moxa box" that doesn't touch the skin.

Both direct and indirect methods are used to dilate blood vessels, boost blood circulation, and improve Qi flow for the beneficial effects of moxibustion. In the United States, indirect moxibustion is generally preferred for its safety. But the temperature from the burning mox is still about 65°C (149°F).

The heat from moxibustion works in two ways: thermally and pharmacologically. The heat affects both superficial and deep skin tissues, with warm-heat effects closely tied to warm or polymodal receptors.

The burning moxa's radiation spectrum ranges from 0.8 to 5.6 micrometers, with the peak near the near-infrared portion. This near-infrared spectrum is consistent across various types of indirect moxibustion and with acupoints, all showing peak radiation near 10 micrometers.

What Is Moxibustion Good For?

Women getting moxibustion on stomach

Moxibustion is used to treat a number of different health conditions:

  • Pain Relief: It's commonly used to manage pain, which can be acute or chronic pain. Moxibustion is particularly effective in "cold" patterns where heat application brings relief. Pain and inflammation can come from injuries, arthritis, back pain, joint pain, knee pain, muscle stiffness, headaches, and tendonitis.

  • Digestive Disorders: Moxibustion is also used to address gastrointestinal issues and irregular bowel movements. It can offer relief for problems like acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive discomforts.

  • Gynecological and Obstetrical Conditions: Another interesting use is to help turn breech babies to make childbirth easier and safer for pregnant women. It's been used to help turn babies in the uterus without the need for medical procedures. Other uses include help with organ prolapses and menstrual cramps.

  • Protection Against Cold and Flu: Moxibustion is believed to boost the body's immunity against cold and flu viruses, helping to prevent infections and enhance overall health.

  • Stress and Mental Health: It's used to help with stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. This makes it a holistic approach to improving mental health and overall well-being.

  • Chronic Kidney Disease: Studies suggest that moxibustion is a promising treatment for chronic kidney disease, highlighting its potential to manage specific health conditions (source).

  • Knee Osteoarthritis: Research has shown that moxibustion can effectively manage knee osteoarthritis by reducing cartilage damage, improving blood circulation, and reducing inflammation (source).

What Are the Benefits of Moxibustion?

Moxibustion offers a range of benefits that contribute to overall health. Here's how moxibustion can benefit you:

  1. Improved Qi and Blood Flow: Increased blood circulation and smooth Qi flow are the core benefits that help to offer relief from various conditions.

  2. Immune System Boost: By stimulating specific points on the body, moxibustion strengthens the body's defense mechanisms, making it more effective at fighting off illnesses and supporting overall immune function.

  3. Pain Relief and Inflammation Reduction: Moxibustion triggers the release of endorphins, body's natural painkillers, to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

  4. Digestive Support: Moxibustion can help regulate digestive function, ease symptoms of indigestion and bloating, and improve gut health. This is particularly useful for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation.

  5. Stress Reduction and Emotional Well-being: The moxibustion therapy has a calming effect on both the body and mind, reducing stress, anxiety, and promoting emotional well-being. It's often used to address depression and mood disorders.

  6. Gynecological Health: Moxibustion is beneficial for women's health, helping to regulate menstrual cycles, ease menstrual pain, reduce hot flashes, breech presentation, and balance hormones.

  7. Increased Energy and Vitality: By balancing and enhancing the flow of Qi throughout the body, moxibustion can help boost energy levels, decrease fatigue, improve mental clarity, and increase overall resilience.

These benefits make moxibustion a powerful, holistic approach to maintaining health and vitality.

What Are the Risks of Moxibustion?

As with any therapy, moxibustion comes with its own set of risks. It's important to be aware of risks and openly discuss them with an acupuncturist in advance before starting treatment. Here are the key points to consider:

  • Accidental Burns: The most common risk is accidental burns. Direct contact between the moxa cone or stick and the skin can lead to skin damage, skin discoloration, pus, and scarring.

  • Side Effects: Moxibustion can cause side effects such as sore throat, coughing, nausea, vomiting, and allergic reactions. Pregnant women need to be particularly cautious as they may experience serious side effects like fetal distress or premature birth.

  • Adverse Events: Other results could be asthma, basal cell carcinoma, ectropion, hyperpigmentation, and in rare cases, even death.

Several factors can influence the safety of moxibustion:

  • The position and duration of moxibustion.

  • The distance between the moxa and the skin.

  • The proficiency of the practitioner.

  • The patient's health conditions.

  • The smoke from the burning moxa.

  • The treatment environment.

Given these risks, you'll want to consult with qualified acupuncturists first. This step ensures that the moxibustion and/or acupuncture treatment is both safe and effective. The practitioner can tailor the treatment to the individual's needs, taking into account their health status and any potential risks.

Who Can Perform Moxibustion?

Placing a burning Moxa Stick on a woman

Moxibustion should only be performed by trained and skilled practitioners. Professionals include acupuncturists or practitioners trained in traditional Chinese medicine and moxibustion techniques.

Here are the qualifications a practitioner should have to perform moxibustion:

  • Acupuncture License: A moxibustion practitioner must hold an acupuncture license, so they have received the required training and expertise in moxibustion with acupuncture, and related therapies.

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine Training: Essential for understanding acupoints, meridians, and the correct techniques for applying moxa heat.

  • Technical Skills: This includes meridian line proficiency, handling equipment, manipulation skills, clinical application, and interpreting moxibustion technique illustrations.

  • Ability to Work in a Clinical Environment: Practitioners need to work effectively in team settings, perform in laboratory and clinical environments without endangering themselves or others, and undergo training including acupuncture and accessory treatments.

  • Sensitivity to Patient Needs: Developing sensitivity to patient needs is crucial through the reciprocal application of heat techniques like moxibustion.

These qualifications ensure that the practitioner is not only skilled in the technical aspects of moxibustion but also capable of providing a safe and comfortable experience for the patient.

Is Moxibustion Safe?

Moxibustion, a traditional Chinese therapy that involves burning moxa on or near the body's surface, is generally considered safe when administered by a trained practitioner. The main advantage of moxibustion is its safety, as it typically has minimal side effects when applied correctly.

However, like any treatment, there are some risks to be aware of:

  1. Burns: Direct skin contact with the burning moxa can cause burns.

  2. Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may be allergic to mugwort.

  3. Smoke Inhalation: The smoke produced during moxibustion can be harmful, especially for those with respiratory issues.

To ensure the safe and effective use of moxibustion, it's crucial to follow these guidelines:

  • Consult a Healthcare Professional: Before starting moxibustion, consult with a healthcare provider, especially if you have certain medical conditions.

  • Seek Professional Supervision: Have moxibustion performed by a trained, licensed acupuncturist or healthcare professional.

  • Avoid Sensitive Areas: Direct moxibustion should be avoided on sensitive areas. The moxa should be extinguished before it touches the skin to prevent scarring.

  • Communicate Discomfort: Let your practitioner know if you experience any discomfort during the treatment.

  • Be Aware of Allergies and Sensitivities: Individuals with mugwort allergies or respiratory conditions should be cautious and may need to avoid moxibustion.

By following these recommendations and maintaining open communication with your healthcare providers and practitioners, you can help reduce the risks associated with moxibustion and ensure a safe and effective treatment process.

Does Moxibustion Hurt?

Lighting up a mugwort moxa stick on stomach

Moxibustion, when done by a skilled practitioner, is designed to be a painless and safe procedure. The heat applied during moxibustion is meant to produce a pleasant, warm feeling on the skin without causing any distress. The heat should not be uncomfortable or hurt.

If you do feel any discomfort, it's crucial to talk to your practitioner immediately. They can make adjustments to ensure your treatment is comfortable and effective. This open line of communication is key to a successful and pain-free moxibustion session.