Moxibustion 101: What It Is, How It Works, and What to Expect From Your Visit

May 12, 2021
Health 101

Moxibustion, or sometimes known as "moxa", centers around the burning of herbs near the skin. The WellQuarters team answers common questions around the practice.

Moxibustion, often referred to as “moxa,” has been an integral component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. With the rise in popularity of holistic medicine, modern research shows this practice to be beneficial, not only in treating pre-existing symptoms and conditions—but also in preventive care.

At WellQuarters, the wellness arm of HealthQuarters, our goal is to keep your body and mind in healthy homeostasis–greatly reducing the potential for illness, injury, and other health emergencies. We’re here to help you survive and thrive!

What is moxibustion?

Moxibustion is a focused form of heat therapy, which entails burning dried herbs–typically mugwort–on or near the skin. Though any type of heat therapy can be effective in increasing the flow of blood and energy throughout the body, use of mugwort has proven advantageous due to its supplemental healing qualities and its slow burning time. Moxibustion is often performed in conjunction with acupuncture, but can stand alone as a powerful solo treatment. Though they share many benefits, moxa has been found to be even more effective than acupuncture in the treatment of certain patients or ailments.

What conditions has moxa been shown to benefit?

An ancient practice, moxibustion is best known as one of the oldest and most popular holistic techniques for turning breech babies. Because the vast majority of babies in this position are born by cesarean section, OB-GYNs often prescribe moxa as a safe treatment for women who do not want to opt for this method of delivery. Moxibustion is also commonly used in the treatment of menstrual cramps, infertility, hormonal imbalances, and menopausal symptoms–including hot flashes.

One of mugwort’s active components, borneol, boasts impressive pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s no surprise that studies have demonstrated moxa treatments to have an analgesic, or painkilling, effect for those suffering from headaches, as well as chronic nerve and joint pain. Its ability to provoke an anti-inflammatory response makes it an excellent option for patients with inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis and colitis

In isolation, borneol has been found to simultaneously reduce stress and combat fatigue, causing what we like to call, “productive energy.” For this reason, it has proven useful in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome. In addition to these relaxing effects, studies show that moxa smoke can improve the activity of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate and digestion. Moxa can also help to stabilize metabolism–improving symptoms of constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, hyperlipidemia, and obesity.

The nourishing heat of burning mugwort deeply penetrates the body to stimulate circulation and lymphatic flow, prevent the spread of infectious disease, boost the immune system, and support overall health. Evidence shows that moxa can significantly reduce side effects experienced by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and during stroke rehabilitation. Moxa can even be used to effectively treat acne, scarring, and other skin conditions.

Moxibustion is an ideal treatment for those who have not had success with (or are sensitive to) drug treatments, or who aren’t ready to try acupuncture. Moxa does not have the potential to interact with other treatments and is a generally safe option for pregnant patients. As is true of all of our holistic treatments, the goal of a moxa session is to bring complete balance to the body and mind in the most natural possible way.

What does it feel like? What should I know?

There are several ways that moxibustion therapy can be performed, but your practitioner will likely use small moxa cones, placing one on each point of treatment. Handheld sticks resembling cigars may also be used on one area at a time. Moxa can be used directly on areas of pain or discomfort, as well as on acupuncture points that are located along pathways in the body called meridians. The stimulation of these specific points promotes movement in those pathways, removing blockages and signaling the body to heal itself.

When the moxa is in place, your practitioner will slowly and carefully ignite it. You will begin to feel a localized heating sensation in the area(s) of treatment, which will spread throughout the process. However, the cones will be extinguished before reaching the skin. The process will generally be repeated 2-3 times, depending upon your specific needs and comfort. The warming effect should be pleasant and relaxing–not painful. If you begin to experience any discomfort, let your practitioner know right away.

You may notice an earthy smell or some smoke during your treatment, but rest assured that this poses no danger to your respiratory system!

What is the experience like? How long will it take? 

When you arrive and check in at HealthQuarters, you will be welcomed by one of our Care Guides. At this point, we recommend using the restroom if you need to. Your Care Guide will lead you into the WellQuarters area, where you will be shown to your treatment room. 

Once you’re settled in, you will meet your practitioner to review your medical history and treatment goals. This may include taking your pulse and examining your tongue—this is a key diagnostic method, so please don’t scrape it before your appointment! It is important that you be open with your practitioner about any medical conditions, injuries, pain, and sensitivities. You are always encouraged to communicate about preferences, comfort levels, and any concerns that you may have, before and throughout your treatment. After your brief intake session, you will be left alone to undress (underwear can remain on, but let your practitioner know if you would prefer to wear more clothing and we can work to accommodate your comfort levels) and relax beneath the fresh sheet on the treatment table.

When your practitioner returns, your treatment will begin. Small cones of moxa will be placed on each of your treatment points and ignited. Due to the nature of this treatment, your practitioner will stay in the room or remain close by. Solo moxa sessions at WellQuarters generally last 15-20 minutes. If you have any additional treatments included in your session, those may be done simultaneously, before, or after your moxa–which will add to the duration.

When your session is complete, your practitioner will review methods to amplify your results at home, as well as provide recommendations for ongoing treatment, should you prefer to continue your therapy. 

How are treatments created for each person? 

At WellQuarters, no two treatment plans are exactly alike. Because each patient is unique, each plan is individually crafted by assessing the patient as a whole. Though we do consider symptoms, we often find that those symptoms are indicators of an underlying imbalance in the body or mind. Our work aims to not only restore that balance, but to train the body to maintain it.

During your intake session, you will have a brief exam and discuss your medical history with your practitioner. If you have had prior appointments with any of our other wellness practitioners, notes from those sessions may be reviewed in order to best meet your needs. It’s a good idea to let us know in advance if you are pregnant or have any specific needs for your session, so that we are able to prepare the most optimal accommodations for you.

With your medical details in mind, you and your practitioner will discuss your objectives for your session. These could include pain relief, improved sleep, increased energy, or any other specific goals. You will also go over any personal preferences, such as areas of your body that you don’t want to be touched. All of these factors will determine the course of your treatment plan.

After your assessment, your practitioner will talk with you about the best way to realistically meet your needs. This may include follow up sessions, wardrobe tips, or recommendations for other integrative wellness treatments—such as acupuncture or cupping. Don’t be afraid to be specific and ask questions! This will help your practitioner customize the very best treatment for you.

How often should I be treated?

Because your treatment plan is completely unique, the same is true of the recommended frequency of sessions. Your practitioner will offer guidance based on your condition, your goals, and how you respond to your sessions. 

We think it is important to note that, because these treatments aim to retrain your body’s natural healing mechanisms, your sessions do build on each other. Pregnant patients might benefit most from frequent sessions. If you are seeking treatment for an acute injury or illness, your practitioner might recommend that you come in weekly for a brief period of time. If your goal is to manage a chronic condition, a longer term plan could be more ideal. Most patients begin to feel improvement after their first treatment, but some take two or three sessions to experience real change. Effects tend to become longer lasting over time.

If you choose to continue treatments, your practitioner will work with you to formulate a plan that fits your goals, preferences, and schedule. Ultimately, we are here to support your individual needs.

What should I do before and after?

To make the most of your moxa session, we recommend that you wear loose-fitting clothing, drink plenty of water, have a light snack, and refrain from brushing or scraping your tongue before arrival. When possible, avoid alcohol, stimulants, and other drugs prior to your appointment—but do not stop taking prescribed medications without speaking to your doctor. We find it beneficial to arrive a few minutes early so you can take some deep breaths and relax (and turn off your phone!) before getting started.

After your appointment, take your time getting up, and allow yourself to move slowly as you reintegrate into the outside world. To support continued healing, we recommend that you carve out some time to rest, and avoid overexerting yourself with strenuous labor or vigorous exercise—especially if you are new to your treatments. Walking, stretching, and yoga are great options for post-appointment activity. Try to avoid wind, swimming or showering, and cold food and drinks for a few hours after your appointment. Abstaining from alcohol for the rest of the day (or several days) will assist your body’s natural healing process. Most importantly, keep yourself hydrated and warm!

During and after your treatment, you might experience an increase in energy or you might be very relaxed and sleepy. You also might feel a release of emotions and even to shed some tears. This is all a completely normal and healthy part of your body’s processing and healing. In Chinese medicine, we believe that your emotions are held in your blood. And our aim during treatment is to get your blood and energy flowing.

Any risks to know?

Moxibustion, when performed by an experienced practitioner, is a completely safe treatment for most people. Side effects are rare, but can include dizziness, coughing, allergic reaction, skin irritation, blisters, or fetal harm. In order to ensure that your treatment is safe, be sure to communicate with your practitioner about any allergies, sensitivities, skin conditions, medical conditions, or pregnancy.

If you are unsure about the safety of moxibustion or if you are hoping to remedy a specific medical condition with this treatment, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor first. Though it has many benefits, moxibustion should not be considered a replacement for other medical care.

Where wellness, science, and you connect

No items found.

Follow The Discourse, and discover more paths to health.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.