Moxibustion is a treatment within traditional Chinese medicine. A practitioner burns the herb “moxa” on or above the skin to warm and stimulate specific points on the body. Practitioners use moxibustion either as a stand-alone therapy or in combination with acupuncture.

In traditional Chinese medicine, moxibustion aims to stimulate the body’s flow of vital energy or “qi” and remove toxins.

Western practitioners may use moxibustion to help alleviate pain and inflammation from various ailments. However, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.

This article describes what moxibustion is and how it works, including its potential uses. It also describes how practitioners perform moxibustion and discusses this complementary therapy’s safety and effectiveness.

A person receiving a moxibustion treatment.Share on Pinterest
kokouu/Getty Images

Moxibustion is a type of heat therapy where a practitioner burns moxa or mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) close to the skin’s surface.

According to a 2018 review, moxa is a medicinal plant that may have several health benefits, including:

Moxibustion is a form of traditional Chinese medicine. According to the American Institute of Alternative Medicine (AIAM), the purpose of moxibustion is to:

  • strengthen the blood
  • stimulate the flow of qi
  • maintain a person’s general health

A 2020 systematic review proposal notes that moxibustion may also play an important role in pain management and preventing and treating diseases.

Applying moxa heat to the treatment area will dilate blood vessels, promote blood flow, and help with muscle relaxation.

The AIAM states that individuals receiving moxibustion usually feel a pleasant heating sensation that penetrates deep into their skin.

Moxibustion may be useful for people who want to try acupuncture but do not like needles. Both techniques involve the use of acupoints. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupoints are areas on the skin that allow access to energy pathways or “meridians” inside the human body.

The AIAM says that acupuncture may help treat the following conditions:

A 2022 systematic review of traditional Chinese medicine found that evidence of its effectiveness remains inconclusive. The study authors added that rigorous clinical trials are necessary to gain better conclusions as to its effects.

Practitioners can perform moxibustion using direct and indirect methods.

Direct methods

Direct moxibustion involves the practitioner placing a small pile of moxa directly on top of a person’s skin and lighting it until the fire burns out.

However, this direct method may cause scarring or blistering of the skin. As such, practitioners should not use direct moxibustion on the following areas of the body:

  • face
  • breasts
  • genitals
  • major tendons
  • major creases in the skin
  • areas close to large blood vessels

The practitioner should extinguish the fire before the moxa burns down to the skin’s surface to avoid scarring.

Indirect methods

Indirect moxibustion does not involve burning moxa against the skin. Instead, a practitioner may use one of the following methods:

  • holding or waving a burning moxa stick over select acupoints for several minutes or until the area turns a pinkish color
  • compressing the moxa into a pole, lighting the moxa, and holding the pole close to the skin
  • attaching moxa to the tips of acupuncture needles and inserting the needles into acupoints
  • using a separate barrier between the burning moxa and the skin, such as:
    • garlic
    • ginger
    • a small pile of salt

As long as a practitioner performs indirect moxibustion correctly, this method avoids injuring a person’s skin.

According to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there is no standardized system regarding the credentials of complementary health practitioners. Instead, state governments decide the qualifications that practitioners must have to work in that state.

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine certifies nonclinical acupuncturists. Many states also allow physicians to practice acupuncture without significant training.

Most Eastern societies teach acupuncture and moxibustion through master-disciple relations or members of a clan. Click here to find a moxibustion practitioner.

Moxibustion is generally safe when trained practitioners perform the procedure.

However, moxibustion may cause side effects if practitioners do not remove needles when combining the practice with acupuncture. These side effects include:

  • bleeding
  • atypical collection of blood outside of a blood vessel, or hematoma
  • dizziness
  • pain

Other adverse reactions due to moxibustion include:

A person who has any of the following conditions should avoid moxibustion with acupuncture or take precautions when receiving this treatment:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that people considering Chinese medicine consult their doctor before undergoing these treatments.

The NIH also adds that the following people should consult a medical professional before using traditional Chinese medicine:

  • pregnant people
  • people who are nursing
  • individuals considering using traditional Chinese medicine to treat a baby or child

Moxibustion is an external treatment that comes from traditional Chinese medicine. The practice involves a practitioner burning the herb moxa on or above the skin to stimulate specific acupressure points.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use moxibustion to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain overall health. They claim that it may also be beneficial in treating painful diseases. However, there is currently insufficient scientific research to support these claims.

Moxibustion is generally safe, but it can cause side effects, such as burns, allergic reactions, or infections. Doctors may also not advise it for people with certain underlying medical conditions, such as active skin infections, lymphedema, and low white blood cell or platelet counts. Any person considering moxibustion therapy should consult a doctor before undergoing the treatment.