Moxibustion is a type of therapeutic method within the Chinese (TCM) and Japanese medicine frameworks. In this article I will introduce the basic concepts and discuss the various options and effects.
Moxa, a short for Moxibustion I use within a context of a Chinese Medicine or Japanese Needle Therapies or a Shiatsu session as a tool to obtain a specific type of acupoint* stimulation. Warming, stimulating, strengthening could be some words to describe it.
What is Moxa? In it's practical realm it is a procedure where a Mugwort herb is burnt over an acupoint to effect deep stimulation. The herb is ignited and placed on the skin over the intended acupoint. There is also a version that used prepared cigar like sticks of the herb that are lit and held above an acupoint or a wider area. The result is in part due to the deep infrared heat and in part the essential oils emanated. The type of heat emanated penetrates through the skin better than other heat sources like a hot water bottle. Various shapes such as cone or rice grain (Japanese), burn times or depths and strokes (if using the stick type) additionally produce differing dosages and effects. This is how it is used in conjunction with acupoints but it can also be used for heat therapy during a massage session. In this case it would create a similar but deeper effect to a heat-bag or bottle getting to cartilage or tendons more effectively but I am diverging a bit here
Let's look at the various moxa styles.
Commonly, a practitioner will either use a moxa stick which is the Mugwort herb dried and coarsely chopped then tightly packed in a very thin paper tube as pictured on the left. It is first prepared by stripping off the outer paper layers. It is then lit at one end and hand held or used within a small holder box over the acupoints to be treated.
It's benefits are in the speed and simplicity of use however most brands produce rather a lot of smoke**. This is a useful method for homework or small applications because of it's simplicity of use and can be taken outside.
Another type, actually the main type, uses cones as depicted on the left. These are prepared as needed from a small portion of mugwort herb that a practitioner hand packs into a shape of a small cone about 1.5 cm in height. This is typically placed directly on the skin over an acupoint. The stimulation can be modified via a use of a thin wafer of additional herb or spice. The stimulation is deeper and more focussed than with the stick type. When the cone has burned for an optimal time it is removed and extinguished in a bowl of water. This process is repeated until sufficient dosage is built up. Once again the length of burn is a controlled variable as is the number of cones used. This is the most commonly used method in Chinese Medicine because it is simple adaptable has many options but is not suitable as client homework due to the skill involved.
A more refined and intense method is the String or Rice Grain moxa pictured on the left. It uses highest grade Mugwort herb from selected parts of the plant that is sliced finer thus enabling it to be formed into short "strings" resembling rice grains about 2mm in thickness. These are then affixed directly to the skin at the site of the acupoint and lit. A practitioner may typically apply 6 to 30 or more rice-grains until a sufficient dose is attained. The stimulation is the most concentrated of all methods and is used in the Japanese needle therapies context to stimulate, move or reinforce qi flows and the specific actions of the acupoint. Because of the fragile nature of the tiny rice-grain moxa and the number of fast burning grains that is lit, extinguished and removed in a rapid succession it is a practitioner only method. It is thus also not suitable for client self treatment.
Moxa application is typically quite relaxing and is rarely painful. A tingling or a spreading of warmth and awareness is typically reported.
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* Acupoint is an alternative term for Acupressure or Acupuncture point. It is not a trigger point.
** Due to the smoke emanated - equivalent to lighting a cigar- I would recommend that if instructed to by me that you use these outdoors or at a pinch in a bathroom with towels removed and exhaust fan running.