Moxibustion is a type of therapy used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to correct various imbalances of the body. The herbal plant Artemesia, commonly known as mugwort, is first dried and then ground into a fluffy, spongy material. This herb is subsequently burnt at various acupuncture points, resulting in a warming and tonifying effect. Moxibustion may also be formed into cigar-like cylinders, that either produce smoke or, are considered “smokeless”.
Smokeless moxa is never directly applied to the skin, while “fluffy” moxa is usually burned directly on the skin or it is wrapped around the handle of the needle and burnt to help penetrate heat deeper into the tissues of the body. While some practitioners burn moxa directly on the skin until the skin blisters, Kristin never uses this methodology as it is painful, unnecessary and there is inadequate research to prove it is superior in efficacy.
The history of moxibustion treatment dates back approximately 2,000 years and it is still a widely applied therapeutic modality.
Burning moxa over or on specific points of the body helps to regulate and correct the movement of qi (pronounced chee). Qi is understood as the vital life force of the body, also known as prana in yoga and Ayurveda.
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Have you ever wondered what keeps your heart beating and your cells replicating?
Chinese medicine practitioners and Taoist philosophers explain this phenomenon as a result of qi or the vital life force. In essence, qi is energy and it is energy that propels all biological life forward. Qi is the motivating force behind metabolism, neurological activity, conception, cellular generation, growth, repair and death. Disruption to the normal activity and movement of qi in the body, due to various forms of stress, causes imbalances and ultimately illness or dysfunction. Identifying the causes or factors contributing to dysfunction and imbalance is what determines whether moxibustion is an appropriate treatment method for the symptoms presented.
Practitioners of TCM typically use moxibustion treatment or moxa when patients present with patterns of imbalance that are categorized as “yang deficient” or “cold”.
One of the most critical differentiations between allopathic medicine and TCM is how illness or disease is diagnosed. Conventional medicine diagnoses conditions based on symptoms and laboratory tests which reflect abnormal levels and ranges of various metabolites, types of cells, proteins, enzymes, hormones, micronutrients and fluids etc.
When a patient presents with symptoms that fall within the “normal” range, often no treatment is available. It is not until your labs are abnormal that any treatment is typically prescribed.
A great example of this is hypothyroidism. A person may present with many signs of hypo-active thyroid, but until such time as the T3 and T4 values are out of range, rarely will there be any medical intervention. Unfortunately, within this model of care, patients often experience symptoms of disease well before the body reflects a “problem” on laboratory findings. Once evidence of disease is present, often the treatments are “one-size fits all”. Variations from person to person are often not taken into consideration.
As in most holistic models of medicine, Chinese medicine takes into consideration the whole health picture of an individual and provides individualized treatment options well before a full blown disease is developed.
In TCM rather than looking for a disease, practitioners identify patterns of imbalance. The language of TCM is unique and quite different from allopathic medicine; people are not diagnosed with “seasonal allergies” but may have a pattern of imbalance which shows Wind Heat invasion.
If,for example, a patient presents symptoms of red eyes that are itchy, sneezing, sinus pressure, and irritability, this indicates an imbalance of the lungs and liver.
Another patient may have similar seasonal allergy symptoms, but instead of red eyes, they have watery eyes, itching of the skin and ears, and a very runny nose. This person does not have “heat” signs as exhibited in the last example with red eyes and irritability, they have more “cold” signs because there is profuse runny nose and watery eyes. Each of these patients will therefore be treated slightly differently.
Moxa is commonly used for digestive conditions such as diarrhea or ulcerative colitis, immunological conditions, pain conditions, circulatory issues and for babies who are in a breech position between 33-37 weeks in utero.
Recent studies have found that moxibustion in rats induced analgesia (pain relief), inhibited excessive gastrointestinal motility (associated with diarrhea), inhibits the expression of inflammatory cytokines in ulcerative colitis and reduces swelling and localized inflammation in arthritis. You can read more about recent moxibustion research here.
Moxa is not appropriate in certain conditions and cases.
Ultimately, whether or not moxa is an appropriate treatment for your particular condition will be determined by your diagnosis and the TCM provider.