When we think about Chinese medicine, we usually think of acupuncture. But even the Chinese term for acupuncture, “Shen Jiu”, literally means “Acupuncture and Moxibustion”.
In ancient China, it was rare that moxibustion wasn’t used when acupuncture therapy was performed. Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy that involves burning of mugwort or moxa plant on certain acupuncture points.
These days, moxibustion therapy is usually combined with acupuncture with great success for diseases ranging from arthritis to bronchial asthma. The leaves of the mugwort plant are dried and burned through various methods.
The Moxa Stick
The most common way moxibustion is administered is to use a ‘moxa stick’ to bring about healing. The dried mugwort is tightly wrapped in paper into a cigar-shaped like stick. The moxa “cigar” can be used in three ways: it’s ‘pecked’ in a manner similar to a sparrow pecking at its food; rotated in circles; or held in one place over an acupuncture point. The practitioner uses his finger next to the acupoint being activated to preserve a pleasant level of heat and to shield the patient from burns by the smoldering moxa.
The practitioner holds the moxa stick about a half an inch from the skin, although this distance depends on the technique of the practitioner. Moxa sticks can be placed on the top of an acupuncture needle that has been inserted in the body or used on their own to activate the acupoint. This combined use of acupuncture therapy and moxibustion definitely boosts the healing power of the therapy.
The Uses of Moxibustion
Moxibustion is oftentimes used to address a yang energy deficiency in the body. Yang is the force that dictates warmth and movement, and yang deficiency leads to cold symptoms. The cold can manifest as coldness in the feet and hands or an overall feeling of coldness in the body. For deficient and weak patients, Chinese medicine practitioners choose moxibustion as main treatment since it literally increases yang energy in the body. A deficiency in Yang energy may also result in loose stools or incontinence, although the practitioner should carefully differentiate these symptoms as they may be caused by other factors.
Moxibustion is also widely known to help turn a breech baby. It is administered for 15 – 20 minutes each day on both feet of the outside edge of the pregnant mother’s little toes. When treatment commences in the 34th week of pregnancy, optimal outcomes are usually attained. Once the baby turns, the therapy should be discontinued. The increase of yang energy results in movement and the use of moxibustion is extended after that, it may result in the baby once again turning back to a breech position. For hundreds of years, it is a common practice for healers to use moxibustion to turn breech babies and since then, its success has been well known.
Other Types of Moxibustion
The ‘heating needle method is an approach that uses dried mugwort rolled and set on the top end of an acupuncture needle. The mugwort is then set afire and burns slowly similar to a burning stick of incense. The heat moves through the acupuncture needle and penetrates into the body into the energy channel of the acupoint. This distribution of heat in the body is commonly used to instantly treat arthritic pain as well as in alleviating rheumatic pain in the joints and muscles.
Another form of moxibustion therapy is called ‘Ginger moxibustion.’ It combines moxibustion’s healing power with that of one of the most popular herbs used in Chinese medicine: ginger. The practitioner cuts a thin slice of ginger, about one to two cm thick, and punctures it with tiny holes. Dried leaves of mugwort are then shaped into a cone the size of a navy bean. The practitioner then places the ginger on the bellybutton of a patient suffering from stomach pain or diarrhea. The cone is placed on the ginger and slowly lit with a flame. The ginger and flaming moxa stay on the belly button until the area turns red and the patient sweats. As the original burning cones are burned up, new cones are added. After five moxa cones are used up, the ginger slice should be changed. Ginger moxibustion can be used for the treatment of ailing joints and for addressing digestive problems.
Direct moxibustion therapy uses a small grain sized cone of dried moxa directly burned on the skin. To make sure the moxa cone sticks, the practitioner spreads vaseline on the skin and sets the cone aflame with the stick’s burning end almost touching the top of the cone until it catches fire. The practitioner uses tweezers to remove the cone when the heat becomes unbearably hot.
The common application of direct moxibustion is to stop severe menstrual bleeding. For this problem, moxa cones are applied to an acupoint at the corner of the big toe nail. To avoid blistering or scarring the skin, the practitioner only burns 67 percent of the moxa. This method can be repeated with three to five cones per toe. In most cases, direct moxibustion provides relief for patients where Western techniques fail to provide any remedy.
In moxibustion treatment for asthma, the cones are directly burned on the patient’s upper back. The cones are totally burned in order cause certain degrees of scarring for this treatment.
Direct moxibustion, while effective, is very seldom performed in the West since most practitioners prefer to treat specific points in the neck and upper back and areas with moxa sticks using a pecking motion.
Like acupuncture, moxibustion, is a varied and complex technique. Chinese medicine practitioners have a broad array of methods to choose from and will use the best techniques that suit their own style of treatment.
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Bellingham, WA 98225