Mugwort or Artemisia vulgaris latiflora is a weed which grows on poor sandy soil throughout East Asia. Many centuries ago, Oriental medical practitioners discovered that this plant, which grows freely on the side of the roads in China and Japan, had wonderful healing properties. There are more than 200 types of mugwort and, like the many different types of tea available in Asia, some are considered a lot more valuable than others.
The purpose of moxibustion, as with most forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is to strengthen the Qi or energy of the patient. Its warming action is widely used to dissipate dampness or accumulation of fluids in the body.
In Oriental medicine, two different forms of moxibustion are commonly used. In the first technique, a small cone or rice grain-shaped amount of moxa is placed on top of an acupuncture point and burned. In the old days, the mugwort was left to remain on the point until it was burnt out completely and produced localised blisters and scarring after healing. While this technique could be very effective, it was quite painful, and my professional experience leads me to believe that very few Australian patients would be very happy to receive burns and scars during treatment. So, in this country, a non-scarring form of moxibustion is more widely used. In this gentler technique, the moxa is extinguished or removed well before it burns the skin. The patient is left with a pleasant heating sensation that penetrates deep into the skin, without experiencing any pain, blistering or scarring.
Moxibustion has been turned into an art form in Japanese-style acupuncture. In that country, moxibustion practitioners have a separate licence to acupuncturists and have often been specialising in that form of treatment for generations. They can perform a full treatment, and often achieve remarkable results without inserting a single needle into their patients.
In practice, two different grades of mugwort are used for different therapeutic purposes. The cheaper, semi pure grade form of Artemisia, which has more impurities and burns a lot slower, is moulded into a thumb nail-size cone and applied to increase the general constitution and immunity of the patients, while the purer, more expensive grade, which burns a lot quicker and generates stronger heat, is moulded into a small rice grain shape and burnt to treat the patient on a more symptomatic level.
In Chinese-style acupuncture, the indirect from of moxibustion is more popular. A moxa stick made up of compressed mugwort and shaped like a cigar, is lit and held close to the acupuncture point until the area turns red. It is generally safer than the direct method popular with the Japanese practitioners, but the quality of compressed mugwort is generally not as good and the heat cannot be targeted so accurately.
Finally, one should mention another variation which combines both acupuncture and moxibustion. In this third technique, an acupuncture needle is inserted into a point and retained, while the tip of the needle is wrapped in mugwort and ignited, generating heat throughout the shaft into the surrounding area. After the desired effect is achieved, the moxa is extinguished and the needle removed.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the burning of mugwort on the skin is believed to expel cold and warm the meridians, which leads to a smoother flow of blood and qi. It is widely used for the treatment of many conditions, including respiratory infections, menstrual pain, impotence and even paralysis.
Herbal medicine includes mugwort with parsley, chamomile, and ginger in a group of herbs called 'emmenagogues'. This means these herbs increase the blood circulation to the pelvic area and stimulate menstruation. Around the world, women have used these plants to trigger the onset of menses for many years.
In Western medicine, moxibustion has successfully been practised to turn breech babies into a normal head down position prior to childbirth. A landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998, found that up to 75% of women experiencing breech presentations before childbirth had foetuses that rotated to the normal position after receiving moxibustion at an acupuncture point on the Bladder meridian. Other studies have shown that this Oriental technique increases the movement of the foetus in pregnant women, and may reduce the symptoms of menstrual cramps when used in conjunction with traditional acupuncture.
Finally, moxibustion stimulates the growth of white blood cells in the body and strengthens the immune system.
It is a cheap technique which is easy to teach and requires little equipment.
In the last few years, British acupuncturist Merlin Young and researcher Jenny Craig founded the Moxafrica charity to fight tuberculosis epidemics in Africa using moxibustion techniques. We wish them the best of luck in this remarkable venture.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com