What Is Moxibustion?

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on July 02, 2023
4 min read

Moxibustion is a form of therapy that entails the burning of mugwort leaves. This is a small, spongy herb that is believed to enhance healing with acupuncture. As such, the leaves are burnt close to the skin’s surface using a stick to apply heat.

The practice is derived from Chinese medicine. Its purpose is to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of Qi or energy, and maintain good health. 

According to Chinese medicine, an increase in the circulation of Qi can help your body deal with a broad range of issues, including digestive problems and chronic pain.

Your moxibustion therapist can apply the technique directly or indirectly. When used directly, the moxa cone rests on the site of treatment on your body. The practitioner ignites one end of the cone and leaves it to burn slowly. Once your skin starts to turn red and you begin to feel the heat, the therapist removes the cone.

In other cases, the practitioner places the moxa on the acupuncture needle and ignites it. The moxa will burn on the needle until it's extinguished. The heat is transferred to the acupuncture point through the needle.

Indirect moxibustion is more common and also a safe option. In this approach, the burning moxa doesn’t come into direct contact with your skin. Instead, the practitioner holds it about an inch away from your body. Once the skin becomes warm and red, they will remove the moxa from near your skin.

Another indirect use of moxa entails using an insulating layer of salt or garlic. The therapist places one of these items between the cone and your skin. Alternatively, they can also fill moxa boxes with the ingredient, ignite it, and put it on the body.

Alternative health practitioners say that the heat generated through moxibustion can help to increase the flow of energy throughout the body. This happens through some pathways known as meridians. Chinese traditional medicine considers the stimulation of energy essential to help your body achieve health and wellness.

Moxibustion is founded on the belief that blockages in the flow of energy lead to mental and physical health problems. Because of this, it’s used to treat:

Several studies have been conducted in trying to establish how moxibustion therapy benefits your health. They also strive to find out the safety and effectiveness of the procedure in treating various health conditions. 

One study has found moxibustion to be excellent therapy for chronic kidney disease. Researchers found it to have a great effect on reducing serum creatinine, which is responsible for poor kidney function in high doses.

Hot flashes. A study involving 51 women in their postmenopausal stages tried to establish the effect of moxibustion on hot flashes. The researchers found that undergoing 14 sessions of the therapy helped reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes.

Ulcerative colitis. The existing scientific evidence on the use of moxibustion to treat inflammation of the bowel is not conclusive. The studies determined that the technique doesn’t provide any benefits for people with ulcerative colitis. However, these studies were of low quality. 

However, studies are ongoing to establish the safety and efficacy of moxa heat in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.

Breech Birth. Moxibustion is considered a safe alternative to help with breech presentation. This refers to a condition where the baby is positioned with its feet first in the birth channel. This position makes for a difficult delivery. 

A 2005 study could not establish that moxibustion is effective in helping the condition. They concluded that further research is necessary before recommending moxibustion to women looking for a solution to breech birth. However, the report showed that moxibustion can significantly reduce the need for medical procedures used to correct the presentation. 

For the best outcome, it’s recommended to have the procedure carried out by professionals. Some hospitals have midwives and obstetricians trained in moxibustion and acupuncture. Acupuncture practitioners must also be licensed in this case.

Moxibustion is a therapy technique worth the try for integrative and complementary treatments. However, it poses a few risks, one being the risk of getting burned in the process. For this reason, it's best to stick with the indirect moxibustion approach, especially when doing it alone. Other possible side effects include: