Moxa for Pain Relief, Health, and Healing
Artemesia vulgaris, Mugwort, Moxa
During these darkening days between Sawhain (Halloween) and the Winter Solstice the temperatures drop, snow is seen dusting the mountain tops, and we go inside, both literally and figuratively. As the daylight diminishes and the temperatures drop many people find a flare-up of arthritis in their hands, are dreading the return of ice-cold white fingers or toes, chilblains, and other cold induced disorders of the extremities. Many people also start to feel depressed, cold, and fatigued. Acupuncture and the use of the herb Artemesia vulgaris or Moxa can help us stay healthy during the turning of the seasons and the deep cold of winter.
Artemesia vulgaris, also known by the English common name Mugwort, and in Chinese medicine as Moxa, is a common herbal medicine steeped in folklore and history across many continents. European herbal medicine has many uses for mugwort including its use to flavor beer, poultry, and to keep away evil spirits. In England during the Middle Ages it was believed that John the Baptist wore a girdle of mugwort into the wilderness. It was thought to protect the user from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits. In Western herbal medicine the plant is used as a nervine, emmenagogue, and as having a diuretic and diaphoretic action. The plant is also used to stimulate digestion, to kill parasites, and is considered good for the liver.
In Chinese herbal medicine the leaves of Artemesia vulgaris are processed to make Moxa for external use. The resulting product is a soft substance that can be rolled into cigar shapes, balls, cones, rice grain sizes, and others. Moxa is burned to promote healing through moxibustion. Moxa is burned over the body at specific points or locations of the body to produce a warming effect that helps promote the flow of qi and blood in the body, and to facilitate healing. The classical texts discuss the special properties of moxa, and state that the smoke created during moxibustion (the process of burning moxa) enters the channels to clear obstructions, and promote the flow of qi and blood. The heat from moxibustion penetrates the muscles and tissues of the body at a deeper level than other plants burned over the skin. Moxa is a very unique and specialized plant that is utilized with great effect to promote healing and warming of an area of the body.
The Many Forms of Moxa
There are many forms of moxa including direct and indirect application. Direct moxa is the application of moxa directly onto the body either at an acupuncture point, or along a channel, or area of pain. In indirect moxa, the moxa does not touch the body, and the burning herb is held over the acupuncture point, channel, or painful area of the body to promote healing.
The different types of direct moxa include thread moxa, moxa cones, and ibuki. Thread moxa is a tiny rice grain sized piece of rolled moxa that can be placed on an acupuncture point. Moxa cones are cone shaped larger pieces of moxa, with a base approximately the size of a quarter or smaller, and are placed on points of the abdomen for healing effect. Moxa cones can be placed on different substances such as a slice of ginger or salt, to promote different effects. Ibuki is a Japanese acupuncture style moxa that is a prepared small roll of moxa that has an adhesive base, similar to thread moxa, but larger and usually only one ibuki is burned at any point to promote healing and a warming effect.
Indirect moxa techniques include pole moxa and moxa on the head of a needle. Pole moxa comes in two general types smokeless and regular. The smokeless variety is harder to both light and extinguish, but produces greater heat without smoke. I prefer the smokey variety as the smoke from moxibustion contains healing properties as discussed in classic literature. Pole moxa can be applied above the surface of the skin at acupuncture points, over a joint, along a channel, the abdomen, anywhere where moxibustion is clinically indicated. Techniques include sparrow pecking, moving the moxa pole towards and away from a point vertically to produce slow heat, with a circling or spiral motion, or along the length of a meridian. Burning moxa on the head of a needle directs the benefits of moxibustion deep into the acupuncture point being stimulated warming the surrounding area and producing a specific healing effect.
The Benefits of Moxa
The benefits of moxa are many. Moxa produces mild heat and is able to penetrate deeply into the muscles to relieve pain, warm the body and promote the flow of qi and blood. In layman terms, moxa can be used to treat:
- Pain worse with cold and damp weather
- Menstrual pain
- Digestive complaints
- Immune support
Moxa can be used at acupuncture points that are known to tonify qi and blood to treat fatigue and boost energy levels as well as immunity. For example, burning moxa at the acupuncture point Zusanli tonifies qi and blood, boosting energy and the immune system, supports healthy digestion, and minimizes the effects of aging. There is an ancient saying that using scarring moxa (a technique that leaves a scarring burn not frequently practiced in the West) at zusanli will cause one to live 100 years.
Moxa for Arthritis
When pain of the joint is worse with cold and damp weather, moxa is a ‘go to’ herb you can use at home. Moxa poles can be lit easily, and while smoldering is held above the body at a comfortable level. There are many different methods of applying moxa, and caution must be used to prevent injury from burns. I frequently teach my clients how to use moxa, so they may experience the benefits and pain relief at their own homes.
My own story of swollen joints and chilblains
In my mid-thirties I experienced chilblains in my hands with any drastic change of temperature below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The joints of my fingers had swollen so significantly that I could no longer wear rings, knock on doors, and driving, typing and holding small objects became very difficult and sometimes excruciatingly painful. Some of my fingers became malformed and started to deviate at the knuckle. My elders frequently asked me why my hands were as bad as or worse than theirs at such a young age! I tried many different herbs, always wearing gloves or mittens when outside, and never taking them off in sub-freezing temperatures. Inevitably I’d need fine motor control out in the winter and take off a mitten and start the cycle of pain over again.
At the age of 37 I purchased a moxa pole and with regular acupuncture and moxibustion of my fingers and the affected joints, my hands began to heal. Now, years later, my fingers are healthy, the joints are mostly back to a normal size, the chilblains have not bothered me for 5 years, and I can play in the frozen north-country in the winter and only have minor aches in my joints. Every summer as the seasons start to change I get out my moxa and work on my hands. If they start to ache as the winter sets in I use moxibustion. It’s simple, cheap, and extremely effective.
In Chinese medicine it is taught that the cold and damp can penetrate into the channels of the body, especially at the joints, and lodge creating a painful obstruction and impeding the flow of qi and blood. I have spent a lifetime outside in the cold, dipping my hands in freezing water throughout the fall as an aquatic biologist, working with plants as the ground thawed in spring, backpacking in all weather (yes, in the winter months too), teaching primitive skills to kids in all seasons, and living an adventurous life in the woods all year round. This lifestyle of not protecting my hands, and frequently chilling them until they were painful with cold led to the invasion of cold and damp in my hands, and the subsequent pain and swelling worse in the cold and damp weather. Moxibustion is one of the most important adjunct therapies for swollen joints and pain worse with cold and damp. It changed my life, and I use it with great success with my patients. Before purchasing moxa and experimenting on your own, please see a licensed acupuncturist to learn how moxa can be used appropriately for your presentation. If you have any questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on the web at www.blueheronacupuncturevt.com.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a safe and comfortable winter!
Christina Ducharme, L.Ac., MAOM, BHSP
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