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How Does Moxibustion Work Really?

October 18, 2011 2 comments

Using a form of direct moxa for a chronic shoulder injury

One of the most useful modalities in Chinese Medicine is the herb known as Moxibustion.  Otherwise known as Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris, or Ai Ye (chinese pinyin); it can be used in a number of different ways.  It can be taken internally, decocted as a tea, applied as a tincture, burned directly on the skin or indirectly just off the skin.

For the purposes of this article we will primarily be discussing the use of Moxibustion directly on or indirectly above the skin.  Generally moxibustion and Acupuncture go hand in hand, it is an extremely useful modality for a wide range of disorders, stages of trauma and disease as well as all ages, constitutional types and individual persons, all of which add to its intrigue.  How can one simple herb be so beneficial to just about everyone?

Mugwort (the type that we ‘burn’) is cultivated from the underside of the mugwort leaf and is packaged up looking like a spongy cotton ball-like material.  This type is generally used ‘directly’; i.e. on the skin, or placed upon the end of an acupuncture needle.  Indirect moxibustion looks more like a large black piece of chalk.  This type is much more functional in the sense that it is ‘smokeless’ and is held just off the skin to create heat and healing, and lowers the risk of getting burned.

So how does it work, and what can you expect from a Moxa treatment?  I have been using moxa a lot lately, 1) because the weather is transitioning toward winter and moxa is a warming modality and 2) because it is extremely useful in reducing inflammation, promoting healthy tissue regeneration and lately I have been surrounded by chronic unhealed injuries lately.

Many people ask how it works, and my tried and true answer is that it’s like using infra-red radiation to mellow out inflammation.  Unlike using heat just on the surface, Moxibustion, like infra-red, penetrates deep into the tissue, muscle or joint affected and though it’s warm to the feel, has the ability to flush out inflammation and essentially cool off the area.  In addition to just treating inflammatory disorders, Moxa is used to:

  • Reduce pain:  acting somewhat like an analgesic
  • Promotes healthy Immunity: when used at specific acupuncture points
  • Promotes kidney Function
  • Treat ulcers & other gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Fertility and menstrual disorders

Following is a great article, written in Acupuncture Today describing in more detail the how’s, why’s & what’s of using Moxibustion.  This article is especially great because there is some really good research to back it all up which is nice for all of us scientific brains out there who like to know how things work!

Article taken directly from Acupuncture Today:

How Does Moxibustion Work Scientifically?

By Yin Lo, PhD

Moxibustion and acupuncture have always gone together as one compound name in the Chinese classics on treatment of illness. We have explained in previous articles in Acupuncture Today how acupuncture works in terms of modern science.

 How does moxibustion work in terms of modern science? The simple answer is that meridians are like optical fibers that transmit infrared radiation.

Fudan University conducted an experiment on meridians and found the following: A high transparency (76 percent) at a wavelength of 2.66 microns has been measured along the axis direction of the collagenous fiber at the Gallbladder meridian on one lower limb in a human body. Along the fiber axis of the Stomach meridian, the transparency is 62 percent at wavelengths of 9-20 microns. The transparency vertical to the axis is 0.4 percent. There is a difference in transparency of more than 240 times between infrared light along the axis and infrared light vertical to the axis of the meridians.

The most interesting thing I have found out on moxibustion is that although it uses heat, it cools down the problem area, so the healing mechanism of moxibustion is the same as needle acupuncture. It is through qi that moxibustion does the work, not the direct incoherent heat that we associate with burning.

Moxibustion can also lower hot spots in painful areas. Please see the following infrared pictures. The color code for the images is as follows: the highest temperature is in white, followed by red, yellow, green, blue, and black.

Infrared image of back, before treatment. Infrared image of back, before treatment. The validity of moxibustion has been confirmed by many recent scientific studies.* It has effects on the immune system, analgesia, the kidneys, colitis, ulcers, neurons, and gene expression. Let us briefly describe them.

The Immune System

Moxibustion at acupoints qi hai (Ren 6) and tian shu (ST 25) inhibited the expression of IL-1 (beta) and IL-a6m RNA in experiments on rats with ulcerative colitis.

Infrared image of back, immediately after moxibustion. Infrared image of back, immediately after moxibustion at BL 23, BL 25, BL 18, DU 3 and DU 4. The back warms up as shown. A. Moxibustion at acupoint guan yuan (Ren 4) on sarcoma S180 ascitic mice increases the decreased erythrocytic C3b receptor rosette-forming rate, decreases the raised immunocomplex rosette-forming rate, and increases activity of erythrocytic immunosuppressive factor in tumor-bearing mice. Hence, moxibustion strengthens erythrocytic immunity.

B. On tumor-bearing mice, there is an instant elevation of serum ACTH and beta-EP from moxibustion at guan yuan.

C. Moxibustion at guan yuan on tumor-bearing mice promotes hyperplasia of the pituitary and adrenal glands, stimulates the secretion of beta END from the pituitary and adrenal glands, and increases the level of serum beta-END significantly.

Infrared image of back, two minutes after treatment. Two minutes after treatment, the heat due to the warming effect of moxibustion has gone and the back starts to cool off. D. In arthritic rats, moxibustion at acupoint shen shu (BL 23) could lighten local inflammatory reaction, eliminate swelling, prevent or reduce polyarthritises, maintain weight and shorten the course of the disease. It could help with recovery and promote the effects of concanavalin, inducing splenic lymphocyte proliferation in rates. It could also promote interleukin-2 production, and decrease IL-1 contents.

Analgesia

A. Moxibustion-induced analgesia was studied in rats, which were urethane-anesthetized. Single-unit extracellular recordings from neurons in the trigeminal nucleus caudalis were obtained from a micropipette. Suppression was observed on both wide dynamic range and nociceptive-specific, but not on low-threshold mechanoreceptive units. Moxibustion-induced moderate suppression with a long induction time. It suggested that noxious inhibitory controls may be involved in the analgesic mechanism.

B. The analgesic effect of moxibustion was measured by the latency of tail flinch threshold (LTH) in rats. When the surface temperature was modulated within 38-390 Celsius and 43-440 Celsius, LTH increased 17.7 +/- 2.1 percent and 22.2 +/-2.5 percent, respectively, after 5 minutes (p<0.05).

Renal Function, Colitis, Ulcers, Neurons and Gene Expression

A. The effects of moxibustion at acupoints BL 15 and BL 27 were studied on spontaneously hypertensive rats. Urinary volume was increased for BL 15, but decreased for BL 27. Urinary secretion of Na+ was decreased for BL 15 and BL 27. Systolic blood pressure was decreased for BL 15, but not for BL 27. Plasma levels of aldosterone and renin activity were increased, and atrial natriuretic peptide was decreased for BL 15. Plasma levels of aldosterone and atrial naturiuretic peptide were increased for BL 27.

B. The effect of moxibustion at acupoint Ren 4 on the function of MDR gene product P-glycoprotein P-170 in mice with S-180R adriamycin-resistant tumor cells was studied. A weak inhibition was found when moxibustion was performed at Ren 4 alone, and a very significant inhibition was observed in the presence of low dosage of verapamil, but not at high dosage.

C. Moxibustion at shen shu on experimentally induced gastric ulcerated rats was found to reduce the ulcer area significantly (p<0.05), and increase the zinc content in serum significantly. Pre-treatment by moxibustion had a protective effect on the gastric mucosa.

D. Stimulating acupoint zu san li (ST 36) on rats with a moxa stick can increase the activity of cholinesterase (p<0.05), and inhibit hyperactive gastrointestinal motility (p<0.05).

E. The effect of moxibustion on primary sensory neurons in the skin of rats was studied with immunocytochemistry combined with a fluorescent retrograde tracer dye. Moxibustion was found to induce galanin expression by primary sensory neurons containing substance P.

F. Pre-treatment with moxibustion at BL 23 significantly prevented the formation of gastric ulcer in rats.

It is quite clear from the above studies that the heat, or infrared radiation, from moxibustion preferentially transmits through meridians from acupoints to internal organs. Meridians act like a light pipe. This is consistent with our hypothesis that meridians are made up of water clusters (Lo, 2005).

Ask your Acupuncturist about using Moxibustion at your next visit; it is one of the most relaxing and comfortable experiences you will have in the treatment room!

If you’ve had Moxibustion in the past, what do you think of it?  How has it helped you?  Share your stories as they are usually the most helpful for people when understanding the elusive practice of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine!

Until next time ~

Erin

Sources: 

Lo, Y. (2005). How does moxibustion work scientifically. Acupuncture Today, 06(02), Retrieved from http://acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=30023

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Moxafrica

February 7, 2011 2 comments

'Mugwort' By, Barry Cornelius @flickr.com

While Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV are not two diseases that we consider epidemic in industrialized countries (the US); they have reached epidemic proportions in other, less developed countries.  In the US, we are fortunate enough to have access to health care, sanitary conditions, education, vaccines & nutrition; and due to our high stress lives we are much more likely to get completely preventable diseases like heart disease & type II diabetes.  So, while we get carried away dealing with the stresses and strains of our busy, overworked lives, there is a huge contingent of people suffering & dying from diseases that can be treated & possibly prevented; but don’t have the means or access to any of it.  Fortunately there are people out there using ‘new’, or in this case, very old treatment modalities to help those in impoverished areas to ease their suffering.

One modality we use in Chinese Medicine is Moxibustion; Moxa for short.  It’s an herb by the name of Mugwort or Artemisia Vulgaris, you may know of it or even see it growing in your yard.  It is a particularly powerful herb and can be used in a number of different ways.  You can take it internally, or topically as a plaster, salve or rub; but most commonly this herb is burned either directly on the skin, just above the skin or on an acupuncture needle.  There are many different kinds of moxa as well, they are generally processed differently; some more pure than others, some more smoky than others.  Like anything, it depends on where you get it, who you get it from and what your intention is for using the herb.  Like most things in Chinese Medicine, I find myself talking about it and think to myself, this sounds a little crazy and weird and possibly barbaric.  Yes, we do burn this herb on your skin, however, it isn’t a burning sensation you feel but a calming & very relaxing warmth over an area of the body or a specific point.  It’s really quite nice and therapeutic in more ways than one.  Some common uses include the treatment of digestive disorders, musculoskeletal disorders (acute trauma and chronic pain), asthma & chronic immune compromising infections to name a few.  In general it has a warming effect on the body and works very well to bring blood supply to the area, increase the healing capacity of the tissue, as well as emit a systemic improvement in your bodies natural immunity.  The power of Moxa (or mugwort ) is much more than a sensation of warmth on the skin (which in itself is nice), it goes much deeper than that and causes a plethora of positive reactions deep to the tissue effecting the whole body and not just one area.  For more information on Moxa and its different uses complete with pictures and video; check out this Facebook page:  Moxibustion:  The Power of Mugwort.

Moxa therapy has been shown to increase immune function, specifically increase white blood cell counts, anti-inflammatory cytokines & anti-body production.  In addition to just improving your immunity and helping when you are simply feeling a bit down, it has proven to be particularly helpful in treating (you guessed it) TB and HIV.  Ever wonder how we treated disease before there were vaccines and pharmaceuticals?   When TB swept the country of Japan back in the 1930’s their primary treatment method was Moxa therapy.  It proved especially helpful in improving life expectancy (of both the sick and the healthy), decreasing the symptoms associated with TB and raising the spirits of those who were afflicted by the disease as well as those who weren’t.

Presently moxa is still used in China & Japan as well as by Acupuncturists and Chinese Medicine practitioners across the United States and the world.  In Japan it is so ‘popular’ that there are many who practice only Moxibustion therapy, (Moxibustionists) and there are many different levels of licensing for practicing Moxa.  In addition to its therapeutic relevance, Moxa therapy is also cost-effective and easy to access; two very important aspects that a developing country, stricken by large numbers of TB and HIV could benefit from.  One organization recognized the benefits of Moxa and is bringing this wealth of knowledge to Africa to help treat those suffering from both TB and HIV.  The organization is called Moxafrica & originated in 2008:

It arose directly from a feasability and fact finding trip last December to Lyantonde, a truck stop town four hours from Kampala on the main route connecting Rwanda and the Eastern Congo to the whole of East Africa. Lyantonde has an unfortunate reputation as a focus for prostitution and HIV/AIDS, the town being home to the first ever officially recorded case of AIDS in Africa.

Our aim was to assess how they would feel about the idea of burning something on the skin, and whether they would consider it an acceptable therapy to try out in their own work places. Additionally we wanted to assess how easy it might be to teach African health workers basic moxa skills.  We soon had them all rolling moxa, both making and burning tiny cones with impressive dexterity.

The following day we were invited to demonstrate moxa treatments on two patients, one of them a very sick man co-infected with TB and HIV. He was terribly wasted by the two diseases, cared for by his sister who was vainly trying to administer his daily medication. After we had finished treating him, using the minimum possible stimulation of moxa because of his dreadful condition, we used a trainee to help us explain to his sister how to use moxa and how to locate a treatment point, leaving her clear instructions on a simple protocol to follow every day, building up dosage if he strengthened.

What we suspect we witnessed at this moment was something we had not even considered previously – that teaching the carer of such a sick person a simple moxa protocol fundamentally offered her something meaningful to do for her brother, and was offering her something maybe even more important as well – hope.  We’re not sure yet how significant this might turn out to be.

To our knowledge this was the first time that a moxa protocol for TB from the 1930’s has ever been used to treat anyone co-infected both with TB and AIDS anywhere in the world. Two weeks after we got back we got the following extraordinary feedback:  “Frank’s response was truly fantastic. I wish you had seen the joy in his sister/attendant as she explained to us how he had improved. I think everyone was just so excited, as he seemed so ill.”

Two days after the treatment began, it transpired that Frank was out of bed, walking tentatively in the ward, and eating.

Cautiously, we found ourselves asking whether this simple treatment might really be able to make the sort of difference we hope it might (www.moxafrica.org, Feb. 6, 2011).

And thus, the project began and continues to inspire those afflicted by disease in an impoverished community.  To continue reading about the program & additional studies regarding Moxa, please check out their website and if you feel so inclined, please donate to the cause.

Link:  Moxafrica.org

In addition to this organization there are a number of others up and running in Africa as well as other countries including our own (the US) that I’ve written of in previous posts:

The Flying Needle: An organization also based in South Africa, helping those with HIV/AIDS

Acupuncturists Without Borders: An organization set up to help with traumatic events; i.e. Katrina and the 911 incidence

The Acupuncture Relief Project:  A project stationed out of Nepal which was founded by a fellow OCOM graduate

Until next time, ask your Acupuncturist about Moxa treatment & as always…

~Be well~

Erin

Sources:

Moxibustion: the power of mugwort fire. (2010, February 6). Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/pages/Moxibustion-The-Power-of-Mugwort-Fire/127985768455?v=wall

Moxafrica. (2010, February 6). Retrieved from http://www.moxafrica.org/index.html

Wilson, Carla, Breaking the Silence in South Africa, www.acupuncturetoday.com, Dec. 1st, 2009The Flying Needle Project, Dec. 1st 2009




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