Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine therapy which consists of burning dried mugwort on particular points on the body.
It plays an important role in the traditional medical systems of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia.
Suppliers usually age the mugwort and grind it up to a fluff; practitioners burn the fluff or process it further into a cigar-shaped stick. They can use it indirectly, with acupuncture needles, or burn it on the patient’s skin.
Theory and practice
Practitioners use moxa to warm regions and meridian points with the intention of stimulating circulation through the points and inducing a smoother flow of blood and qi.
Some believe it can treat conditions associated with the “cold” or “yang deficiencies” in Chinese Medicine. It is claimed that moxibustion mitigates against cold and dampness in the body, and can serve to turn breech babies.
Practitioners claim moxibustion to be especially effective in the treatment of chronic problems, “deficient conditions” (weakness), and gerontology. Bian Que (fl. circa 500 BCE), one of the most famous semi-legendary doctors of Chinese antiquity and the first specialist in moxibustion, discussed the benefits of moxa over acupuncture in his classic work Bian Que Neijing. He asserted that moxa could add new energy to the body and could treat both excess and deficient conditions.
Practitioners may use acupuncture needles made of various materials in combination with moxa, depending on the direction of qi flow they wish to stimulate.
There are several methods of moxibustion. Three of them are direct scarring, direct non-scarring, and indirect moxibustion. Direct scarring moxibustion places a small cone of moxa on the skin at an acupuncture point and burns it until the skin blisters, which then scars after it heals.
Direct non-scarring moxibustion removes the burning moxa before the skin burns enough to scar unless the burning moxa is left on the skin too long.
Indirect moxibustion holds a cigar made of moxa near the acupuncture point to heat the skin or holds it on an acupuncture needle inserted in the skin to heat the needle. There is also stick-on moxa.
Chuanwu lingji lu (the Record of Sovereign Teachings), by Zhang Youheng, was a treatise on acu-moxa completed in 1869 and featuring several color illustrations of the points on the body where moxa could be applied to treat the complaint.
The first modern scientific publication on moxibustion was written by the Japanese physician Hara Shimetarō who conducted an intensive research about the hematological effects of moxibustion in 1927.
Two years later his doctoral dissertation on that matter was accepted by the Medical Faculty of Kyūshū Imperial University. Hara’s last publication appeared in 1981.
A Cochrane Review found limited evidence for the use of moxibustion in correcting breech presentation of babies and called for more experimental trials. Side effects included nausea, throat irritation, and abdominal pain from contractions.
Moxibustion has also been studied for the treatment of pain, cancer, stroke, ulcerative colitis, constipation, and hypertension. Systematic reviews have found that these studies are of low quality and positive findings could be due to publication bias.
Parallel uses of mugwort
Mugwort amongst other herbs was often bound into smudge sticks. The Chumash people from southern California have a similar ritual.
Europeans placed sprigs of mugwort under pillows to provoke dreams, and the herb had associations with the practice of magic in Anglo-Saxon times.