Chinese Burns: Moxibustion, Cupping’s Less Famous Cousin

The lesser-known form of traditional Chinese medicine is often used in breech births.

Many of us are now familiar with cupping: placing glass or silicone cups on the skin to create a vacuum that dispels stagnated blood and improves circulation. If it was already hard to ignore after much-publicised photos of Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Phelps sporting the tell-tale cupping circles on their back, ‘facial cupping’ has now become the latest viral trend on TikTok. But the scientific sounding moxibustion, which is frequently used in tandem with cupping? It’s not yet a household name.

Moxibustion - Eldvarm

What is it?

A type of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), moxibustion involves burning ‘moxa’, a cone or stick made of ground mugwort leaves, on or near the body’s meridians and acupuncture points. Practitioners believe that the heat generated helps to stimulate these points and so improve the body’s flow of ‘qi’ (energy). Moxibustion has been common in Asia for thousands of years; the Chinese character for acupuncture literally translates as ‘acupuncture-moxibustion’.

What is it used for?

According to adherents, moxibustion can improve circulation and aid in a variety of health issues from chronic pain to digestion disorders, as well as general energy issues related to the modern lifestyle. It’s most famous as an alternative therapy for breech babies, with strong evidence to suggest that moxibustion therapy around the thirty-five-week stage can help the fetus to rotate to the normal position. Moxibustion has also proven effective for osteoarthritis; when used in tandem with acupuncture it can boost bone density and may reduce pain. However, moxibustion doesn’t work for everyone and, as with all alternative therapies, it is best to be realistic about potential results.  

What do I need to know?

There are two types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. With the direct version, a cone-shaped amount of moxa is placed on an acupuncture point and burns slowly until the skin begins to turn red. Once the patient begins to feel the heat, the practitioner removes it; with the ‘scarring’ version of direct moxibustion, the moxa is left on the skin until it goes out, which can create blistering or scars. Indirect moxibustion is more common and much safer: a practitioner lights the end of a cigar-shaped moxa stick and holds it close to the treatment area until the skin turns red. Other indirect variants include burning moxa on the tip of an acupuncture needle which is applied to the body; placing lit ‘moxa boxes’ on the body; or putting an insulating layer of salt or garlic between the moxa and skin.

Where can I do it?

Moxibustion is a growing phenomenon in China, where it originated, with dedicated subscription services on the messaging app WeChat educating users on how to practice it themselves. Elsewhere, many acupuncture clinics offer moxibustion as part of their services. It’s highly advisable to visit a trained practitioner to learn how to perform moxibustion yourself; while it’s relatively straightforward after professional instruction, and home kits are readily available online, placing heat so close to the skin can cause burns. It’s critical to stick to the indirect kind of moxibustion to lower the risks.

Strange fact?

Terrifyingly, fatigue-easing ‘eyeball moxa’ is one potential treatment on offer in Japan, at Tokyo-based shop Sankei, which is entirely devoted to the art of moxibustion.

Moxibustion - Eldvarm

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