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What is Moxibustion?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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Moxibustion is a form of oriental herbal healing. It uses the mugwort herb, called moxa by the Chinese, in heated form, either on an acupuncture needle or directly on or around the skin. It is thought to stimulate blood flow, and make the person more centered. It is often used to treat muscle weakness due to aging, and many believe that moxibustion therapy prolongs life.

Burning moxa, usually mugwort made into sticks that resemble incense, is held above the skin or around the acupuncture needles. Care does need to be practiced since hot ashes from the sticks could fall on the skin and cause burns. Some practices actually do burn the skin, but this is not standard in Western practitioners' use of Chinese medicine.

Some claim that moxibustion can end panic attacks, reduce fatty tumors, and treat spastic colon. Others suggest moxibustion may also help reduce menstrual cramps, treat back pain and cure colds. These claims have not been proven.

However, moxibustion does appear to increase blood flow to the pelvis and uterus. It might thus be used as a treatment for menstrual cramps. Many practitioners of moxibustion also claim it will help turn a breech baby. This is one of its most common applications in Western medicine.

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Greater blood flow to the uterus, which moxibustion does provide, might provoke a baby to move into the correct position. In fact, a 1998 article in the American Medical Association Journal did find that about 75% of women who had moxibustion therapy to turn a breech baby did result in the baby turning appropriately. It is hard to say how many of these babies might have turned on their own, however.

Some alternative practitioners also use moxibustion to treat areas that are inflamed, or to treat people with colds and viruses. Studies on the efficacy of moxibustion in these cases are mostly based on anecdotal evidence and not double blind clinical trials. Some studies have also focused on using moxibustion to treat menstrual cramps, and some women claim relief from this therapy.

If one is considering moxibustion, one should consider working with a licensed acupuncturist. People who combine both alternative and Western medicine may be better choices than little known practitioners. Moxibustion used improperly may accidentally burn the skin, which can be dangerous. In most cases, however, people are not burned by moxibustion, but feel mildly warmed by the process. Diabetics should not undergo moxibustion, however, as they are more vulnerable to skin infection.

While moxibustion can be traced to the East, indigenous tribes of the Americas, for very different reasons, also prized the mugwort plant. Mugwort was considered godlike, and spiritually healing. Anglo-Saxons believed that mugwort stimulated dreams. However, many felt mugwort had unsavory associations with witchcraft. It is fascinating that in many parts of the world, a single plant could provoke so many different beliefs.

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