Moxibustion, or moxa, is named after the Japanese word mokusa, meaning “burning herb.” It was first recorded in medical texts during the Song Dynasty (a.d. 960), but it has most likely been in use much longer. It is an important therapy in Traditional Chinese medicine; the ancient texts advise that moxa should be tried if acupuncture and herbs have failed. The heat from moxa can be very penetrating, making it effective for impaired circulation, cold and damp conditions, and yang deficiency (always cold). When applied to acupuncture points, the body absorbs the heat into its deepest levels, restoring the body’s yang qi, the source of all heat and energy in the body.
Moxa is prepared from mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which is a common perennial herb, some may also know it as the chrysanthemum leaf. The aromatic leaves are dried and repeatedly sifted until they are fluffy for up to seven years.
There are two heating techniques used: indirect moxa and direct moxa.
In indirect moxa, the “moxa wool” is rolled into a long cigar shape and wrapped in paper. The cigar-shaped moxa stick is then lighted and held about an inch away from the desired area — an acupuncture point or other area of the body chosen by the practitioner. Indirect moxa can be used on acupuncture points to achieve a systemic, or body wide effect or it can be used directly at the site of a problem.
For example, indirect moxa might be applied to a swollen, stiff area such as an arthritic knee . It is also appropriate to apply indirect heat to specific acupuncture points. The heat taken into these points and can rise the body’s metabolism and immunity.
One ancient text declares that “one who applies moxa daily to Zusanli (Stomach 36) will be free of the one hundred diseases.” Applying moxa to Stomach 36 has an energizing effect on the body, especially in regard to immune and digestive functions. Some indications for its use in Chinese medicine are to treat general weakness, anemia, indigestion, nausea, chronic fatigue, allergies, and asthma. Modern research has confirmed that the immune system is stimulated when some points receive moxa.
Another type of indirect moxa involves rolling the moxa, placing it on the end of an acupuncture needle while the needle is in the body, and igniting it. The heat from the moxa travels down into the needle tip. The needle transfers the heat specifically to the desired point on the body.
With direct moxa, a small amount of herb is rolled into a cone and burned directly on the skin. When moxa is applied directly to the skin, some ointment is first placed on the point to avoid a burn. In other techniques, the moxa is burned on top of a slice of ginger, garlic, or aconite; this prevents a burn and also adds the therapeutic effects of those herbs to the treatment.