Chinese Healing with Moxibustion:
 Burn Your Ailments Away

By Toni Balfour, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., Dipl. C.H.

Many of us think of Chinese medicine as being synonymous with acupuncture, but even the Chinese term for acupuncture, “Zhen Jiu”, literally translates into “Acupuncture & Moxibustion”.

Rarely in the medicine practiced in ancient China were acupuncture needles inserted without also treating patients with moxibustion, a therapy which involves the burning of specific herbs at acupuncture points.

Today, moxibustion is frequently used alongside acupuncture for conditions ranging from bronchial asthma to arthritis with amazing success

In moxibustion, the leaves of the Chinese herb mugwort (Artemesiae Vulgaris) are dried and then burned using one of several methods.

The ‘moxa stick’ is the most common form in which moxibustion is used to promote healing. Here the dried mugwort is rolled up tightly and wrapped in paper forming a cigar-like stick. The moxa stick can be held in one place, rotated in circles, or ‘pecked’ in a motion similar to a sparrow pecking at food over the area of an acupuncture point. The practitioner places a finger next to the point being stimulated to maintain a comfortable level of heat and to guard the patient from the unlikely risk of burn.

The moxa stick is held approximately a half inch from the skin, although this may vary from patient to patient. Moxa sticks can be used on their own to stimulate an acupuncture point or can be used on a point where an acupuncture needle has been inserted.

This simultaneous use of moxibustion along with the acupuncture needle intensifies the therapeutic benefit of the given acupuncture point.

The moxa stick is primarily used to treat a deficiency of ‘yang’ energy in the body. It is yang energy that governs movement and warmth, and a deficiency of yang results in cold symptoms. The patient may feel cold, or may complain of cold hands and feet. For patients who are very weak and deficient, stick moxa is chosen as a primary treatment due to the fact that it actually adds “yang qi” to the body. Yang qi deficiency can also manifest in incontinence or loose stools, although these symptoms must be carefully differentiated by the practitioner as they may have other causes.

Another popular use of stick moxa is in the turning of a breech baby. Stick moxa is applied to the outside edge of the little toe on both feet of the pregnant mother for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Best results are achieved when treatment starts in the 34th week of pregnancy. Moxibustion therapy should be discontinued once the baby turns. The stimulation of yang results in movement and prolonged use of moxibustion could cause the baby to continuously turn, once again moving into a breech position. Turning breech babies with moxibustion is a very common practice in Chinese medicine and success had been reported for centuries.

Another form of moxibustion involves the ‘heating needle’. In this method, a roll of dried mugwort is applied directly on the head of an acupuncture needle. The roll is then lit and burns slowly like an incense stick. Heat penetrates through the acupuncture needle and transfers deeply into the acupuncture point. This infusion of heat brings instant relief to rheumatic pain in the muscles and joints and is commonly used as a treatment for arthritic pain.

‘Ginger moxa’ is yet another method that combines the therapeutic properties of moxibustion with those of ginger, one of the most popular herbs used in Chinese medicine. Practitioners cut a slice of ginger, approximately one to two centimeters thick, and pierce it with tiny holes. Dried mugwort leaves are then rolled up into a cone that is about the size of a lima bean. The ginger is placed on the umbilicus of a patient suffering from diarrhea or abdominal pain. The moxa cone is placed on the ginger and then carefully lit with a small flame. The burning nugget of moxa and ginger remain on the umbilicus until the patient perspires and the area turns red. New cones are added as the original cone burns down. The ginger slice should be changed after 5 moxa cones. In addition to treating digestive symptoms, ginger moxa is also beneficial in the treatment of painful joints.

‘Direct moxa’ is a method where the dried herb is rolled into a small cone (about the size of a rice grain) and burned directly on the skin. Vaseline may be spread onto the skin to ensure that the moxa cone will stick. The moxa cone is lit with the end of a burning incense stick, barely touching the top of the cone until it ignites. Tweezers are used to take the cone off when the heat becomes uncomfortable.

Direct moxa is commonly used to stop heavy menstrual bleeding. Women suffering from excess bleeding will have moxa cones applied to a point at the corner of the nail of the big toe. The moxa is burned two thirds of the way down to avoid scarring or blistering the skin. This procedure is repeated with three to five cones per toe. Here again, in the vast majority of cases, the direct moxa treatment brings relief where Western techniques offer little help for patients.

Traditional treatment of asthma requires that moxa cones be burnt directly on the upper back. In this treatment the moxa cones burn all the way down in order to actually cause some degree of scarring.

Moxibustion, like acupuncture, is a complex and varied therapy. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have a number of methods to choose from and will adopt the best methods to suit their individual style of practice.