Moxibustion, or moxa, is a traditional way in which acupuncture treatment is augmented to include a warming and stimulating of the body area in question. Indeed the traditional Chinese term for ‘acupuncture’ is zhen jiu; zhen means needles, jiu means moxa, so this makes it clear that moxa is a key aspect of traditional acupuncture practice.
In moxibustion, the warmth is provided by a dried herb of the species mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which when lit smoulders slowly, providing a gentle and penetrating warmth. This is done in one of a number of ways depending on the effect sought. For instance, when moxa is used in combination with acupuncture, sometimes a small cone of the herb is attached to the end of an acupuncture needle, thus warming the needle and directing a targeted heat into the site of the needle.
Alternatively, to apply a more generalised warmth to an area of the body, a moxa stick is used. This resembles a large cigar or an oversized incense stick, which is lit at one end and then held about an inch above the area to be treated. The stick is usually rotated or a ‘pecking’ motion is used to allow the heat to penetrate the body. A more direct form of this treatment involves placing a tiny cone of the herb directly onto the body and letting it smoulder until the patient feels a penetrating warmth, when the herb is the removed.
Moxa treatment does not always accompany acupuncture; the choice of when, where and which form of moxibustion to use is a matter of clinical judgement for the properly trained clinician. It is most often used in ‘cold’ conditions; for example, if you have knee pain which feels worse in cold, wet weather, moxa may well be a useful addition to acupuncture treatment.
A question often asked is, is the heat from moxa different from other sources of warmth, such as heat lamps or ‘deep heat’? One obvious difference is the way in which moxa can be used to provide a very targeted warmth, as when it is used on the end of a needle. Furthermore, the pleasing odour produced by moxa when it smoulders is considered by many to be therapeutic and part of the treatment. Interestingly, mugwort has a long history of medicinal as well as culinary use across a wide range of cultures.