Other common name(s): acumoxa, auricular mo, moxabustion
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Moxibustion is the application of heat resulting from the burning of a small bundle of tightly bound herbs, or moxa, to targeted acupoints. It is sometimes used along with acupuncture (see our document, Acupuncture).
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that moxibustion is effective in preventing or treating cancer or any other disease. Oils from the herbs used in moxibustion are dangerous if consumed.
How is it promoted for use?
Moxibustion is a practice of both traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine that stimulates acupoints in order to promote the body's ability to heal itself. Practitioners claim the radiant heat produced by the burning herbs penetrates deeply into the body, where it is supposed to restore the balance and flow of vital energy or life force called qi or ch'i. Moxibustion is promoted for improving general health and treating cancer and chronic conditions such as arthritis, digestive disorders, and ulcers. It is also supposed to increase circulation to the pelvis and bring on menstruation.
What does it involve?
Moxibustion involves the burning of moxa, which is a bunch of dried leaves from mugwort or wormwood plants that have been formed into a small cone or cigar-like shape (see our documents, Mugwort and Wormwood). The 2 main types of moxibustion are direct and indirect.
In its earliest uses, direct moxibustion was most often burned on the acupuncture point, with the moxa cone placed directly on the skin. However, this often produced pain and scarring. Some Chinese traditions still deliberately induce scarring, but that technique is not often used in the United States.
Indirect moxibustion, the method most commonly used in the United States, involves either burning the moxa above the skin, or on top of an acupuncture needle that has been left in place. Other practitioners may place a layer of ginger, garlic, or salt on the person's skin, with the burning moxa on top of it. For people who have asthma or other breathing problems, smokeless moxa can be used.
There are other kinds of moxibustion. One type is burnt match moxibustion, in which the practitioner rapidly taps one or two acupoints on the ear with the head of a burnt match. Another type is thread incense moxibustion, in which the practitioner burns thin strips of moxa. Warm needle moxibustion involves the use of acupuncture needles that have been heated with a match or lighter.
What is the history behind it?
Moxibustion evolved thousands of years ago in early northern China. It is part of traditional Chinese medical practices and came about near the same time as acupuncture. In such a cold, mountainous region, heating the body on energetically active points was thought to help prevent illness and promote healing. Chinese medicine practitioners currently use moxibustion in some parts of the United States.
What is the evidence?
In general, most studies that have looked at moxibustion have not followed rigorous scientific guidelines to be sure that the outcomes were due to the moxibustion treatment. It is also difficult to find studies where moxibustion is used without acupuncture so that its effect can be evaluated alone.
One 2010 review of clinical trials that used moxibustion in cancer treatment suggested that it might help reduce the nausea and vomiting of chemotherapy. But there were problems with the methods used in the studies, so that researchers could not be sure of any benefit. Further research is needed to find out if moxibustion might help with supportive care of people with cancer.
A Chinese study of 230 women in the 1990s suggested that moxibustion may have helped some fetuses in breech (bottom-first) position return to a normal, head-first position before birth. In the study, 75% of the babies in the moxibustion group were born in the normal position, as opposed to 62% of those in the control group. But like many Chinese studies of moxibustion, this one did not have a placebo group, so it is harder to be sure that the outcomes were due to the moxibustion treatment rather than other factors. A 2005 review concluded that only 3 of 11 published studies of moxibustion and breech delivery provided useful clinical evidence and that although these studies suggested moxibustion might be useful, there was "… insufficient evidence to support the use of moxibustion to correct a breech presentation." Controlled clinical trials done in France and Switzerland in 2009 found moxibustion did not help correct breech births.
Other research in China has examined the use of moxibustion in asthma and ulcerative colitis (chronic inflammation of the colon). A small study of moxibustion and acupuncture found that this approach was not helpful in treating obesity.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Direct moxibustion can burn the skin. Moxibustion that is intended to cause scarring can produce blisters and tissue damage.
Oils from mugwort and wormwood can cause toxic reactions if taken internally, although their toxicity is much lower when applied to the skin. Mugwort is on the Commission E (Germany's regulatory agency for herbs) list of unapproved herbs. This means that it is not recommended for internal use because it has not been proven to be safe or effective, due to the possibility that it may cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Moxibustion can cause burns and may be dangerous for diabetic patients due to reduced sensation and problems with infection.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
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National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.
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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 03/08/2011