Moxibustion

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Moxa or moxibustion is a term derived from the Japanese word mogusa or mo kusa, meaning, “burning herb.” It can be found in many forms, from moxa “wool” to moxa pressed into a charcoal stick, but it is always harvested from the mugwort plant (artemisia vulgaris or artemisia argyii). After harvesting, the leaves are ground aged for 3-5 years before use.


Mugwort has been used alongside acupuncture for over 3 thousand years, at least as long as we have evidence of the practice of acupuncture. The translation of the Chinese character for acupuncture, zhenjiu: “zhen” stands for needle and “jiu” means moxa, or acupuncture-moxibustion. They are integral and complimentary modes of treatment: “A disease that may not be treated by acupuncture may be treated by moxibustion,”  according to the Lingshu (Miraculous Pivot, or Spiritual Pivot), one of 2 parts of Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), the earliest book written on Chinese Medicine, compiled around 305-204 B.C.
There is evidence of a long history of the use of mugwort within the archives of Western civilization too. Its Latin name, Artemesia Vulgaris associates the herb with the Greek God Artemis. Below is an illustration from an 11th century manuscript in which her Roman counterpart, Diana, hands the god Chiron the herb mugwort for medicinal purposes.


What exactly does the practitioner do?
In the U.S., practitioners generally hold a burning moxa stick close to, but not touching, the surface of the skin.

In this method, the moxa material is compressed into a stick or pole, looking not unlike an oversized cigar that can be lit and allowed to smolder, producing a unique form of very penetrating heat.
The smoldering moxa stick is held over specific areas, often, though not always, corresponding to certain acupuncture points. The glowing end of the moxa stick is held about an inch or two above the surface of the skin until the area reddens and becomes suffused with warmth.

What can I expect to feel?
It is not uncommon for patients receiving moxibustion to report a sudden flooding of warmth that quickly radiates along a specific pathway (usually corresponding with the jing luo channel that is being treated) away from the site of application. This is a good result, as it indicates the arrival of the Qi and signals that the flow of Qi and xue has been freed in the channel.
When is moxibustion used?Moxibustion is used for:
  • Pain due to injury or arthritis, especially in "cold" patterns where the pain naturally feels better with the application of heat
  • Digestive problems and irregular elimination
  • Gynecological and obstetrical conditions, including breech presentation in late term pregnancy
  • Protection against cold and flu strains
Practitioners often do both acupuncture and moxibustion in the same clinic session when appropriate to the diagnosis and treatment strategy. Practitioners believe that the therapies increase each other's effectiveness when used together.
Unlike acupuncture, which is almost always done by a trained practitioner in a clinic setting, moxibustion can be easily used at home. It is not uncommon for Chinese medical practitioners to train their patients to use moxa on themselves to strengthen the effect of the clinical sessions between appointments.


What does it smell like?
There is a small inconvenience associated with moxibustion: the smoke and odor. Although there are so-called smokeless varieties of moxa, the preferred true moxa (made from mugwort) does produce a lot of smoke when burned. Most TCM clinics are well equipped with a good ventilation and air purification system, so this is not a big problem.
However, the lingering odor produced from burning mugwort unfortunately smells somewhat like marijuana. Most practitioners in the United States, place small signs around their office informing patients and visitors about the true nature of the odor that they may be noticing.

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