Moxabustion, or moxa therapy, is a very traditional part of Chinese Medicine and acupuncture. Moxa is the Chinese name for the fine powder or hairs that grow on the leaves of the mugwort plant. This powder is collected and burned to apply heat and produce a warming effect in the body. This particular substance is used because it does not catch fire when lit, but rather smolders producing a very even heat and no flame. The very definition of heat is the speed at which things are moving. Because the basis of Chinese Medicine is “where there is flow there is health, and where things do not move there is disease,” it is easy to understand why adding heat is equivalent to improving health. This means increasing blood flow and improving health.
Moxa can be applied directly to the body with the use of something called a “moxa box.” This is a device that holds the burning moxa away from the body, but keeps the heat directed down onto the skin and into the body. Even a simple slice of ginger can be used to put the moxa on and apply heat to the skin. By burning the moxa on the ginger the skin does not burn, but it is warmed up as the moxa smolders.
In some cases moxa is applied directly to the skin. If done correctly there is minimal surface contact and the skin is not burned. However, in some cases the desired effect is to cause a burn and a scar. The idea being to stimulate the specific immune response that occurs where there is a burn. This type of moxa therapy is not commonly used here in the West.
Another way to apply moxa and warm the body is to put some of the moxa powder on the end of acupuncture needles after they have been inserted. The mugwort powder is naturally sticky and tends to adhere to the needle when applied properly. When the “needle moxa,” as it is called, is lit it applies heat and warmth directly to the tissue at and around the acupuncture point. The metal needle conducts the warming effect deeper into the body.
Moxa can also be rolled into a stick, and looks like a cigar. The moxa stick can be lit, and used to warm up a part of the body such as the abdomen, or a joint such as the shoulder or knee. It is held about 1 inch away from the body producing a warming effect but no burn. The moxa stick would be held in place for 2-15 minutes and then it is put out and can be re-used.
Moxa is excellent therapy for cold conditions, and is often used for symptoms such as menstrual cramps, abdominal or digestive pain, joint pain, and muscle pain, such as in the lower back. It is especially useful in cold climates.