By Rachel Nowakowski, L.Ac.

As you walk into the Clinic, you often notice the familiar smoky odor of moxa. New patients usually ask, "What's that strange smell?" Some people love it, others do not.

What is moxibustion and what is it used for?

Moxibustion is a method of heating specific acupuncture points on the body by burning an herb material close to the skin. This technique can be used alone or in combination with acupuncture. In fact, the Chinese character for acupuncture literally means "acupuncture-moxibustion." The basic purpose of moxibustion is to warm the meridians to promote circulation of qi and blood.

What is moxa made of?
The herb material used is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, Ai Ye) an invasive weed, which grows in many climates, including Western North Carolina. Mugwort has a long history of use in folk medicine. It is believed that the Romans planted mugwort by roadsides to make it available to travelers to put in their shoes to relieve aching feet and protect them from exhaustion. Added to bath water, it is a soothing treatment for relief of muscle and joint aches - perhaps due to its ability to enhance the movement of qi and blood.

Mugwort gets its botanical name from the Greek moon goddess Artemis, a patron of women, and is a wonderful herb for gynecological conditions. In Chinese Herbal medicine, it is categorized as an emmenagogue, an agent that stops bleeding. Internally, it is used for heavy menstrual bleeding and uterine bleeding. It also increases blood circulation to the pelvic area to treat menstrual pain. Taken internally, it can warm the uterus and is used for threatened miscarriage. Moxibustion has successfully been used to turn breech babies into a normal head-down position prior to childbirth by increasing fetal movements.

Why mugwort and not some other herb?

Some sources say that mugwort is used because of its acrid, spicy odor. This property makes it able to travel through all of the meridians, regulate qi and blood, and expel cold. In addition, its bitter nature helps to resolve dampness. One of mugwort's active components, borneol, is commonly used in topical therapies for its analgesic effects.

Other explanations for the use of mugwort, as opposed to some other herb material, is that it grows easily in many places, is inexpensive, holds its shape when rolled or pressed, and burns slowly.

An additional benefit of moxa is that the smoke may help to prevent transmission of diseases when used in acupuncture clinics. In hospitals in China, incense made of artemisia and other herbal ingredients has been used to inhibit viruses and to reduce the bacterial count in the air.

What is moxibustion used for?

To warm meridians and expel cold. Cold slows the flow of qi, resulting in stagnation and pain.
To promote the smooth flow of qi and blood.
To guide qi and blood upward or downward. Energies in the body must flow in the correct direction.
To strengthen yang from collapse.
Moxibustion can be used as a tonification treatment.

What are the different techniques of moxa?

In the Clinic, we mostly use indirect types of moxa: needle moxa, stick moxa and moxa bowls. With all moxa, the patient feels a mild to moderate heat sensation on the area being treated.

Needle moxa: a rolled piece of moxa is placed on the end of an inserted needle and ignited.
Stick moxa: a moxa stick (about the shape and size of a cigar) is lit and held close to the skin.
Moxa bowls: pieces of moxa are inserted into a small disk that is placed on the skin.
Moxa can also be used with other substances to give different effects. For example, a piece of moxa can be placed on top of a slice of fresh ginger for severe cases of digestive weakness. Moxa can be placed on top of salt applied over the belly button to treat hernia pain or prolonged diarrhea.

Another type of moxa is direct moxa. In direct moxibustion, a small cone of moxa is placed directly on an acupuncture point and burned, but is extinguished or removed before it burns the skin. The patient experiences a heating sensation that penetrates deep into the skin, but should not experience any pain, blistering or scarring.

Traditionally, direct moxa involved scarring moxibustion. The moxa would be placed on a point and left on the point until it burns out completely. This would lead to localized blisters and scarring after healing. The prolonged healing process is thought to increase qi and blood flow to the point, making the treatment stronger. This type of moxa therapy is not done at the Clinic.

Any type heat applied to the body can increase the flow of qi and blood. Heat lamps, heating pads or warming liniments can give a similar effect to moxibustion. But the heat combined with the powerful healing properties of mugwort gives moxibustion a proven advantage.


Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1987.

Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., 'Moxibustion: Practical Considerations for Modern Use of an Ancient Technique'

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