Moxibustion Ice & Inflamation

The Healing Power of Heat

Heat has long been recognized as a powerful mode of healing. Whether it’s the soothing comfort of a hot bath after a long day or the natural fever response our body mounts to fight infections, heat plays a critical role in promoting health and wellness. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), one of the most notable applications of heat for therapeutic purposes is moxibustion. This ancient practice involves burning the herb mugwort to generate heat and stimulate healing. Whereas acupuncture works by moving Qi around and promoting energy production through the bodies own systems. Moxabustion (and herbal medicine) actually introduce energy into the body and there are times when this is exactly whats needed.

The Science of Heat as Healing

Heat therapy is widely acknowledged for its ability to relax muscles, improve blood circulation, and create a sense of relaxation and well-being. When applied to the body, heat penetrates deeply, reaching areas that are cold or tense, and helps alleviate discomfort. For instance, taking a hot bath can ease muscle soreness and fatigue, enhancing overall relaxation.

Furthermore, heat is the body’s natural defense mechanism. When we develop a fever, our body is essentially heating up to fight off infections. While high fevers need to be managed carefully to prevent damage, mild to moderate fevers can be beneficial as they activate the body’s immune response.

Questioning the Use of Ice

Traditionally, injuries like sprains are treated with ice to reduce inflammation. However, this practice has been increasingly questioned and it does sometimes seem at odds with holistic principles. Some argue that heat might be more beneficial in certain cases, as it supports the body’s natural healing processes. This shift in perspective highlights the importance of understanding when and how to use heat effectively and questions some of the assumptions we make about using ice.

“We have to keep in mind that anything that reduces inflammation also delays healing since the process of inflammation is an essential aspect of recovery itself. Although cold therapy typically slows the soft tissue swelling to some extent, it does not hasten the recovery process”. (See link to article) 

Moxibustion: A Core Practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Moxibustion, or moxa, is a technique in TCM that uses heat from burning mugwort to stimulate acupuncture points on the body. There are several methods of applying moxa, each with its unique benefits:

  1. Moxa Box: A traditional method involves a wooden box with gauze at the bottom. Loose moxa is placed on the gauze and lit, and the box is placed on the body, usually on the abdomen or lower back. The heat radiates through the gauze, deeply penetrating the body. However, due to the smoke and strong smell, this method is less commonly used in modern practices without proper ventilation systems. We dont cover this on the HAC course.

  2. Moxa Cones: Practitioners roll moxa into small cones, which are placed directly on acupuncture points and lit. The cones are removed before they burn the skin. While effective, this method can be challenging as it requires precision to avoid burns. You will see people in China with burns on their legs and backs where this is considered more “normal”. We only use a version of this method occasionally on our advanced course.

  3. Moxa Rolls: These are like cigars made of moxa. The practitioner lights the roll and holds it close to the skin, allowing heat to penetrate without direct contact. This method is versatile and can be used for larger areas such as the back or neck.

  4. Moxa on Needles: Small moxa rolls are placed on the end of acupuncture needles inserted into the body. The moxa is lit, and the heat travels down the needle, providing deep, localized warmth and energetic tonification. Although this still produces smoke we do still teach it, specifically on St36 on the leg. (photo above) Its such a good way to help build energy in someone who is depleted that I like students to know about it. We just have to make sure the room is well ventilated on those occasions.

Modern Adaptations: Heat Lamps

Since the introduction of the smoking ban in the UK, using moxa has been somewhat out of step with current trends and expectations. Patients dont want to feel that they are entering into a smokey/smelly environment and most practitioners find that the pungent smoke and smell of moxa becomes too-much after a while. So due to the challenges associated with moxa, we use heat lamps as an alternative. These lamps emit radiant heat, which penetrates the body similarly to moxa. Although purists argue that moxa has unique energetic properties essential for healing, heat lamps are a practical and effective substitute. For those who prefer the traditional approach, moxa essence—a fluid made from mugwort—can be applied to the skin before using the heat lamp, combining modern convenience with traditional benefits.

Smokeless Moxa

Someone had to come up with this at some point didnt they? and its an option. You can buy rolls of smokless moxa or specially shaped cones to fit onto the end of needles. We do demonstrate and try this at the college and it works well enough. But most of us dont like the type of heat that radiates from smokeless moxa, it seems and smells quite “chemical” in nature.

Japanese vs. Chinese Moxibustion

While both Chinese and Japanese acupuncture use moxibustion, there are philosophical and methodological differences. Chinese moxibustion tends to avoid using heat on inflamed areas, preferring cooling methods. In contrast, Japanese practitioners sometimes treat heat with small amounts of heat, echoing the homeopathic principle of “like cures like.” This subtle application of heat can be effective for certain conditions, showcasing the nuanced approaches within different traditions of acupuncture.

Im not expert on Japanese moxabustion which is a therapy in its own right. They have various sophisticated methods of applying the heat and they use much “lighter” and smoother grades and types of moxa.

Conclusions

Heat as a method of healing is deeply rooted in both modern and traditional practices and we can all probably relate to the healing effects of the hot water bottle. Moxibustion, with its various techniques and adaptations, remains a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine. Whether through the direct application of burning mugwort or the use of modern heat lamps, the therapeutic benefits of heat continue to be recognized and utilized.

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