Moxa: Therapeutic Fire
(Originally published as an article for Imbue Pain Relief Patch)
In the practice of Chinese Medicine, heat is nearly always considered preferable to cold for the treatment of pain. A fundamental principle of this medical system is that all pain is caused by stagnation – andcold application tends to inhibit circulation. When there is pain, this is because the movement of blood and/or vital energy (Qi) through an area is inhibited. This might be because of tissue damage, such as after an injury; or due to tight muscles; or a strain; or poor posture; or hardened or blocked blood vessels; or a blood clot, etc. In all cases, restoring the continuous flow of Qi and blood through the area is the goal. Whether or not we think in Chinese terms, when the pain goes away, movement has been restored and stagnation has been alleviated.
Things contract when they get cold (like our skin, which turns into goosebumps) and they expand when they get warm. Cold halts flow and warmth promotes it. Cold is useful for certain problems, such as acute injuries like a sprain, since its flow-inhibiting quality can stop the influx of fluid that is part of the inflammatory process. But that’s just for the first 24 hours. After that, the cell debris and stagnation needs to be ushered out and fresh blood and nutrients brought in to promote tissue repair, and this can be accomplished most effectively with heat. Sure, cold may numb the nerves to such a degree that you can’t feel the pain for a while, but when the area warms up again, the pain usually comes back, without any lasting benefit. Most sufferers of chronic joint pain will tell you that cold definitely makes things worse.
In Chinese Medicine, we have a special way to administer heat, called moxibustion. Moxibustion, sort of a contraction of the words “moxa” and “combustion” is the burning of an herb called moxa over the skin to produce penetrating heat. This herb, Artemisia vulgaris, is also known by the common name mugwort, which, I know, sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Moxa is actually the fine fuzz that has been collected from the undersides of the leaves of this plant, and it’s sometimes referred to as “moxa wool,” since it has a consistency not unlike raw wool.
For the treatment of pain, moxa is most often utilized in a form called a moxa stick or moxa pole. A moxa stick is made by compressing moxa or rolling it in paper to form something like a cigar, a really thick incense stick, or a rod of charcoal. The end of the stick is ignited to produce a red glowing tip. This smoldering end of the stick puts out an intense and even heat, and the stick burns down very slowly, so one typically gets at least a half an hour of strong heat application from a moxa stick. This glowing tip is held about an inch over the skin and slowly moved around for about 10-20 minutes in order to warm the whole affected area up. Moxibustion imparts a deep, lasting warmth to the area that can be very helpful for pain.
Why not just use a cigar? Well, cigars are more expensive, they produce second hand smoke you shouldn’t inhale, and they don’t work as well as moxa. Having used numerous different forms of heat application over my years in practice – gel packs, hot water, water bottles, heat lamps, hot stones, self-generating heat packets, etc. – I don’t think any of them work as well as moxa. I really wish they did, because they’re all easier to use than moxa, and they don’t produce smoke like moxa does. But there is just something very special about the heat this herb generates. Call me woo-woo, but I think there is some significance to the fact that we’re employing actual fire – such a primal force – in the healing process. It seems to melt tight muscles, it feels soothing, and it is also considered to fortify the tissues or the underlying organs. I often send patients in pain home with some moxa sticks and instructions to perform it on themselves daily. They almost always report that it makes a big difference.
If you’re interested in trying moxa, you can usually find moxa sticks in a Chinese grocery or herb store, or you can get them from me at our spa (they’re cheap). Feel free to drop me a line if you’d like instruction on using a moxa stick properly.