CHEN Bao-xing and Garé LeCOMPTE

A man gets a moxibustion treatment from the local doctor as his wife and family look on in amusement. The burning of herbs in moxibustion stimulates the acupuncture points. This painting, by Song dynasty artist Li Tang (c.1050–1130), is called The Village Doctor.

Moxibustion is a healing art of traditional Chinese medicine in which herbs are burned to stimulate acupuncture points on the body of a patient. Today it is commonly practiced in conjunction with acupuncture and Western medical procedures.

Moxibustion, as a healing art of traditional Chinese medicine, cannot be separated from acupuncture, which is the practice of inserting fine needles through the skin at specific points to cure disease or relieve pain. By definition moxibustion means the use of moxa (a Japanese term for wormwood, Artemisia vulgaris) as a cautery (an agent used to burn, sear, or destroy tissue) by igniting it close to the skin. Moxa is a soft, woolly mass prepared from the young leaves of various wormwoods of Eastern Asia.

Moxibustion treatment is conducted with moxa rolls or sticks, which, after being ignited, can be held by the doctor’s hand at a distance of three centimeters or so from the selected acupuncture points for ten to fifteen minutes, resulting in a moxa cauterization effect. Moxibustion, therefore, can also be defined as the process of burning herbs to stimulate acupuncture points. With special indications such as acute abdominal pain caused by cold, facial muscle atrophy of unknown etiology (the cause of a disease or abnormal condition), and so forth, a thin, small slice of ginger as an insulator can be put at the site of the acupoint between the ignited moxa roll and the skin. The patient may feel heat at the acupoint. Alternatively, acupuncture may be administered to the patient first, and then the moxa rolls cut into small cylinders are ignited and applied to the ends of the acupuncture needles. The theory and principles of channels and collaterals must be learned to master the art of both moxibustion and acupuncture. In traditional Chinese medicine channels are the main trunks that run lengthwise through the body, and collaterals are their connecting branches. Together they connect the superficial, interior, upper, and lower parts of the body. Qi (life energy) courses through the channels.

The concept of administering moxibustion (or moxibustion plus acupuncture) is based on providing heat stimulation at the acupuncture points along the channels and collaterals. The effects are twofold. First is local hyperthermia therapy, and second is the effect on remote organs along the channels and collaterals. The selection of the moxibustion and acupoints is done according to the indications of the disorder.

Moxibustion and acupuncture today are practiced in departments of traditional Chinese medicine and in many Chinese hospitals, where traditional Chinese medicine is integrated with Western medicine. Research has concluded that serious adverse events are rare in the standard practice of moxibustion and acupuncture.

Further Reading

Geng Junying & Su Zhihong. (1991). Practical traditional Chinese medicine and pharmacology: Acupuncture and moxibustion. Beijing: New World Press.

Yamashita, H., Tsukayama, H., Tanno, Y., & Nishijo, K. (1999). Adverse events in acupuncture and moxibustion treatment: A six-year survey at a national clinic in Japan. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 5(3), 229–236.

Zhang Enqin. (1990). Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion. Shanghai: Publishing House of the Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Source: Chen, Bao-xing, & LeCompte, Garé. (2009). Moxibustion. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1523–1524. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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