Would You Let Your Acupuncturist Set You on Fire?

acupuncture and moxibustion

The umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes a number of practices you’re probably familiar with. The most well known is acupuncture, where tiny, hair-fine needles are inserted into the body. Recently cupping has come into the spotlight as Michael Phelps and other Olympic athletes compete covered in dark, bruise-like circles, created by suctioning cups onto the skin. In addition, herbal medicine is a popular branch of TCM, using plant material that is made into a tea and taken internally.

Both acupuncture and cupping work by moving stuck or stagnant qi, blood and body fluids away from the site of pain of dysfunction. But sometimes the body also needs warmth and nourishment.

This is where moxibustion comes in. Moxibustion (or moxa) is the practice of burning the herb mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) on or near the skin. It warms the body and dispels cold and damp stagnation. It also builds blood and nourishes the muscles.

Different forms of Moxibustion

1. Stick/Cigar

Mugwort and other substances are combined and rolled into a stick that is then lit and blown out like incense. The resulting ember is then held close to the skin (1-2 inches away) until the heat can be felt. The result is mild warmth to the area being treated.

2. Tiger Warmer

A Tiger Warmer is a small metal contraption that allows lay people to apply moxa to themselves or loved ones at home. A small moxa stick (see above) is placed inside the Tiger Warmer and lit. The cover goes over the end, and the heat from the moxa warms the end of it. This warm end can then be rubbed on the area being treated (great for pain or fertility). If you want to try this at home, rub some oil or lotion over the area to allow the Tiger Warmer to glide smoothly, and move it when you start to feel warm. Don’t leave it in one place too long – you don’t want to burn yourself!

3. Needletop

New we’re getting into the fun stuff. Only practiced by licensed acupuncturists, needle top moxa places a tightly packed hunk of mugwort on top of a needle that is inserted into the skin. The mugwort is lit and blown out again, so that it smolders and smokes. It works great to heat a large area of skin, and to drive the heat deep into the body through the needle.

4. Direct

This is my favorite type of moxibustion, but also leaves the most risk of getting blistered, so make sure to find an experienced practitioner if you’d like to try it. Direct moxa involves rolling small pieces of refined mugwort into cones or “rice grains”, sticking them to the skin with a little cream (called Shuinko in Japanese), then lighting it with a stick of incense and letting it smolder down. Sometimes a small piece of bamboo is used to put it out before it becomes uncomfortably hot.

Have you ever let your acupuncturist set you on fire? Would you? Share with us in the comments below.