Definition & Overview

Moxibustion is a traditional medical technique with Chinese roots. It uses natural heat therapy derived from dried mugwort plant that produces moxa when it is burned near the skin surface. The warmth is said to help dispel unwanted pathogens in the body. The plant, known to help speed up healing, was used in Asia for thousands of years due to its medicinal purposes, with news and use of it spreading not just across China but also in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and even Mongolia. Also known as Artemesia Vulgaris or simply "ai ye" in Chinese, the plant is known to increase blood circulation, especially in the pelvic and uterus area, making it more beneficial for women.

Who should undergo and expected results

Based on its use in traditional Chinese medicine, moxibustion can help resolve a long list of health issues, including:

  • Colds – The moxa and its resulting therapeutic heat is known to help expel cold from the body.
  • Breech pregnancies – Moxibustion is believed to help turn breech babies into a normal head-down position during pregnancy to make sure no complications occur during childbirth. Published studies showed that this therapeutic method has a success rate of 75% when it comes to resolving breech presentations. This is achieved by applying the moxa at an acupoint near the bladder.
  • Menstrual cramps – When combined with acupuncture, the moxa is also known to effectively reduce menstrual cramps.
  • Pain relief after injury, including sprains and strains
  • Pain relief for arthritis and tendonitis
  • Digestive issues
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Clammy hands and feet


Recent experimental studies have also linked the procedure with more health benefits, including:

  • Asthma treatment
  • Ulcerative colitis treatment


Aside from treating specific health issues, moxibustion is also believed to bring a general improvement in a person's health. It can help restore the body's strength and slow down the aging process. Also proven to be beneficial for middle-aged and elderly people, it is especially helpful in maintaining the health of the spleen, stomach, and kidneys.

The procedure is often performed in conjunction with acupuncture when it is deemed necessary or safe for the patient's condition or diagnosis. Most practitioners hold the opinion that the effects of both therapies are heightened when they are used together. However, while acupuncture is only mostly done in clinics, moxibustion can be performed even in the patient's own home, as long as the room has proper ventilation.

How the procedure works

Moxibustion is performed by qualified acupuncturists and any medical practitioner who has completed a degree programme in traditional Chinese medicine. Moxibustion practitioners are not governed by a licensing or accreditation body, but in some countries, only those with an acupuncture license can perform this procedure.

The procedure is believed to work by warming specific regions of the body, which are identified as meridian points, a concept similar to acupuncture points. The intention is to stimulate circulation and make blood flow more freely. Ancient Chinese concepts believe that the warmth makes up for the "yang deficiency" that causes cold and other problems in a person's body.

How moxibustion is performed

  • Direct moxibustion – The direct method uses a small amount of moxa that is placed on top of key acupuncture points in the body and burned. The process can be either scarring or non-scarring. With a direct scarring moxibustion, the moxa is ignited and allowed to burn out completely, causing scarring and blistering after the skin heals. With a direct non-scarring technique, the moxa is extinguished or removed so that it will not burn the skin. Both methods, however, cause a healing sensation to penetrate through the skin, although some traditional advocates of this therapy believe that the scarring method is more effective.
  • Indirect moxibustion – An indirect moxibustion is the more popular choice because it is safer than the direct method. It is performed by holding a burning moxa stick just over the area needing treatment. It is held in place above the skin, but not touching it, for several minutes until some redness is observed. In another variation of the indirect technique, the moxa is attached to acupuncture needles, which are inserted into the acupoints while the moxa remains safely away from the skin.
  • Stick on moxa – This is a more modern technique of moxibustion. It is performed by placing a small amount of rolled up moxa on cardboard barrier. It is then lit before placing it directly on the moxa points.
  • Moxa wool – This involves putting some salt on the patient's navel, kneading some wool into a cone, and putting it on the salt. The size of the moxa wool varies depending on the condition that is being treated.


Patients can expect to feel a sudden warming sensation that tends to radiate along a specific direction, which depends on the purpose and location of the area that is being treated. This sudden heating sensation is believed to be the arrival of the 'Qi', signaling its ability to flow freely through the correct channels in the body.

Experts say that a moxibustion procedure should last at least 3 to 5 minutes but should not exceed 15 minutes. The more serious the ailment, the longer the procedure should be. Longer sessions are used only for the treatment of specific illnesses or diseases, while shorter treatments are used for general health maintenance. In the summer, the length of the procedure is also kept shorter due to the effect of climate on body temperature.

Possible risks and complications

While the use of moxa is proven safe to use by years and years of Chinese medicine, it is not advisable for everyone and should only be used for its known purposes.

Another possible complications are respiratory issues arising from the inhalation of moxa smoke. The plant is known to produce a huge amount of smoke and also causes a strong, pungent odor. While some may find it simply uncomfortable, other patients, especially those with existing respiratory problems, may find it more bothersome. Fortunately, there are smokeless moxa sticks available these days that can be used as an alternative when treating patients who are sensitive to smoke and strong odors. Although still quite effective, many still prefer what is called the 'true moxa' made from mugwort, which, unfortunately, produces a lot of smoke because it is believed to be more effective. Many clinics simply combat the smoke and odor with the use of in-house air purification systems.

References:

  • The Mechanism of Moxibustion: Ancient Theory and Modern Research
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