Moxibustion - what is it and why is it done?

When I was still studying Chinese medicine, and practiced using moxa on my mother, she said, “Don’t do this the first time you see someone, it is too weird.” I generally follow this rule. When people try acupuncture, they are expecting to receive acupuncture, but usually not expecting other Chinese medicine practices. Having plant matter burned over your skin may seem a bit strange. While many Acupuncturists and East Asian medicine practitioners use it in their practices, many do not. I use it in my practice, almost every day. Because it is little understood, let’s discuss what exactly it is, and its purpose.

Moxibustion is the term for the burning of moxa. It is derived from the Japanese word for the herb mugwort, “mogusa,” and the Latin word for burning, “bustion.” Moxa is aged mugwort that is dried and ground up into a fine and fluffy product, referred to as “moxa wool.” It is very light and typically is a green, gold or brown in color. This product can be made into sticks or poles with paper surrounding it and used over the skin to warm points and channels. It can also be made into small cones or rice shaped and sized grains and used directly on the skin on particular points. Moxa can also be burned atop needles, either shaped into balls and stuck on top and burned, or tiny sticks of moxa can be burned on top of the needle.

The purpose of burning moxa on points or along channels is to warm, build qi and blood and yang, circulate, and dispel dampness. Moxibustion is very good for treating deficient and cold conditions, as it helps add qi and blood to the body and is warming. Acupuncture typically is understood to help bring balance to the body, but does not supplement the body like moxa does. 

Mugwort can be taken internally, and is an ingredient in numerous Chinese herbal formulas. The herbal category for Ai Ye (pin yin for mugwort leaf) is: herbs that regulate the blood - herbs that stop bleeding. It’s actions are: warm the channels, warm the womb, stop bleeding, calm the fetus, disperse cold, alleviate pain, eliminate dampness, stop itching, resolve phlegm, stop cough and asthma. It has been demonstrated in modern studies that moxibustion increases the production of white blood cells, increases the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin, and improves the circulation of blood and lymph (1,4,5,6,8).

I use moxa frequently in my practice for patients with deficiency and cold patterns, fatigue, to support fertility, for recurrent or threatened miscarriage, for menstrual pain, nerve pain, and muscular pain and spasm, to support immune function, to stop excessive menstrual bleeding, to aid in proper positioning of a fetus, to reduce nodules, to heal scar tissue, and to inhibit viruses, bacteria and fungi in the room.

There is scientific evidence of its efficacy, especially for supporting the immune system. Studies have demonstrated that using moxa increases cellular immunity, and is helpful in treating autoimmune diseases (2,3,7). It is also shown to decrease side effects of chemotherapy and improve blood circulation, platelet function, coagulation and fibrinolysis (1,2,6,8). Moxibustion is thought to promote improved function of all the internal organs and even reduce tumors. The mechanism behind moxa’s efficacy appears to be from the enhanced activity of the host defense mechanism in response to the local inflammation that moxibustion causes. While a widespread burn impairs immunity, controlled local inflammation from moxibustion produces immunological responses that aid restoration of immune function (9).

As strange a practice as it may seem, it is very relaxing, and feels healing to those receiving it. Moxibustion is sometimes contraindicated for certain conditions and constitutions, and may not be tolerated by those with severe sensitivities to mugwort or smoke. While many say that moxa has a pleasant smell, many others complain that the smell is similar to marijuana, and plenty of practitioners have been accused of smoking in their office. The benefits of moxibustion are plentiful, but, like most things, it is not for everyone, and not for every condition.

1          Okazaki M, et al., Effects of single and multiple moxibustions on activity of platelet function, blood coagulation, and fibrinolysis in mice, American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1990; 18(1-2): 77-85.


2          Hau DM, et al., Effects of moxibustion on cellular immunocompetence of γ-irradiated mice, American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1989; 17(3-4): 157-163.


3          Hu Guosheng, et al., Clinical observations on Hashimoto's thyroiditis treated by indirect moxibustion with various Chinese medicines, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1996; 16(1): 27-32.


4          Wu Huangan, et al., Clinical therapeutic effect of drug-separated moxibustion on chronic diarrhea and its immunological mechanisms, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1997; 17(4): 253-258.


5          Wu Ping, Cao Yong, and Wu Junmei, Effects of moxa-cone moxibustion at guanyuan on erythrocytic immunity in tumor bearing mice, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 2000; 20(1): 68-71.


6          Pei Jian, et al., Effect of moxibustion of dazhui (GV-14) on cellular immune function in tumor-bearing mice, International Journal of Oriental Medicine 1995; 20(2): 72-76.


7          Li Changdu, Jiang Zhenya and Li Yingkun, Therapeutic effect of needle warming through moxibustion at twelve shu points on rheumatoid arthritis, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1999; 19(1): 22-26.


8          Okazaki M, et al., Effects of a single moxibustion on cutaneous blood vessel and microvascular permeability in mice, American Journal of Chinese Medicine 1990; 18(3-4): 121-130.


9 Dharmananda, Subhuti. Moxibustion: Practical Considerations for Modern Use of an Ancient Techniqu