The Healing Power of Moxibustion

Feburary 2011

In my practice, often after inserting the needles, I light up a moxa stick and do Moxibustion. Seeing this, patients often ask me, “What does the ‘cigar’ do?” Recently, this ‘cigar’ has done wonders in an elderly lady. When she came in she complained of pain in her feet and a tingling sensation in her toes, pain which almost brought her to tears. She also experienced back pain, and pain along her hips, thighs and legs, and she mentioned that she had hardly any sensation in her little toes. After considering her age and her pulse quality, I decided to do more Moxibustion than needling. Every time we did moxa, she said that she felt good. At the end of the treatment, she reported that she didn’t feel any tingling sensation or pain. I gave her some moxa sticks to do self-treatment at home. After several sessions, her back pain and leg pain were gone and the tingling sensation in her toes was much less. She also started to feel sensations in her little toes once again.

A lot of people have heard of acupuncture, but they may be unfamiliar with Moxibustion. This is ironic since the word for “acupuncture” in Chinese is “Zhen Jiu”, which means “needling and Moxibustion”. Moxibustion is the integral part of the acupuncture healing modality. In past issues of newsletter, I have written about acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, this newsletter is devoted to moxa — the underused yet powerful healing tool…

Moxibustion is at least as ancient a practice as needling and some scholars believe that it developed even earlier. It involves burning cones made of Artemisia (Ai Ye or mugwort in English) wool on or just above the skin to achieve therapeutic effects. Ai Ye (mugwort) is a Chinese medicine herb that has the function of warming up the body and promoting Qi and Blood circulation. Burning of Ai Ye above acupuncture points, or along acupuncture meridians, or above certain area of the body helps to warm up the area and promote the smooth Qi flow in the meridians. Moxibustion is often used to treat deficient and cold conditions. For example, if a child eats the whole box of ice cream and starts to have bad stomach cramp, Moxibustion above the navel (belly-button) area can help to warm up the stomach and relieve pain. As another example, if an elderly lady has pain in certain area of the body and also complains about feeling cold, Moxibustion along the meridians where she feels the pain can help to expel the cold, promote the flow of Qi and relieve pain. Moxibustion can be used as an add-on treatment to needling, or as an independent treatment.

There are many ways of doing moxa. The traditional way is to put the moxa cone directly on the skin at the acupuncture point and let the moxa cone finish burning on the skin. The number of cones used depends on the condition of the patient. The more deficient the person is, the more cones we usually use. Because of the intense heat, the skin at the point usually blisters and later forms a scar. The blistering is the desired effect of this method of Moxibustion. According to the perspective of the western medicine, the blistering and scarring trigger an immune response in the body, which is how the desired therapeutic effect is achieved. Because pain and scarring are not well tolerated in the west, direct Moxibustion is very rarely performed in most acupuncture clinics. Instead, the moxa is burned near the skin, which is more socially acceptable. In my practice, I usually use two types of moxa. They are both processed mugwort leaves to ensure the minimum of smoke when lighted. One type is a “stick-on” moxa, which is a small moxa stick on an adhesive heat shield. I stick it onto the acupuncture point and then light it up. When the patient feels that the skin at the point is getting too hot, I remove the moxa. The built-in shield prevents the skin from being burned. The other one I use is the bigger moxa stick, the one that looks like a cigar. I light it up and hold it about 1 inch above the point or the area that needs to be treated. In the case of the woman mentioned at the beginning of the newsletter, I held the moxa stick above her skin at a distance where she feels strong warmth, and moved it along the meridian line in a sweeping motion. I swept the burning moxa back and forth for about 20 minutes until she reported that the whole area was warm and the pain was subsiding.

Moxibustion can treat many conditions effectively. It is effective to relieve pain conditions due to cold and deficiency. This is commonly seen in elderly people or people who have chronic illness whose Qi is weak. I often use moxa in conjunction with needling. But in some cases where the patient’s Qi is very depleted, I use Moxibustion alone.

I have treated severe uterine bleeding or heavy and prolonged menstruation successfully with Moxibustion. I hold the moxa stick above the point Spleen 1 (Ying Bai: located at the outside corner of the big toes) for about 15-20 minutes. I then ask patients to do Moxibustion at home once a day for the same length of time. The condition usually improves after several days. I often use Moxibustion on Ki1 (Yong Quan: located at the depression of the sole) to treat insomnia. This helps to ground the person and especially effective to relax and calm the mind. I also use Moxibustion to treat diarrhea and other digestive conditions due to cold and deficiency. Moxibustion on Ren 4 (Guan Yuan: located about 3 inches below the navel) helps with impotence and infertility in women due to cold and deficiency.

Another well-documented effective treatment of Moxibustion is for a pregnant woman whose baby is in breech position (head up and bum down). Doing moxa on BL67 (Zhi Yin: located at the outside corner of the little toe) helps the foetus to turn to the right position. This treatment has been very widely accepted in the west, so much that I heard it mentioned by the teacher in my pre-natal class and also by the doctors at the maternity clinic.

Another advantage about Moxibustion is that it helps to strengthen immunity to prevent the flu. If you have children and elders at home, this is a handy treatment that you can do to help them stay healthy. Besides treating patients with Moxibustion, I often teach patients how to do Moxibustion for themselves and their family members. If you would like to learn more about Moxibustion and how to do Moxibustion treatment for yourselves or loved ones, please contact Dr. Judy Zhu for more detailed information.