Do you smell the moxa burn?
Have you ever heard of mugwort? No, it's not the name of a spell from the Harry Potter books. Mugwort is the herb used by moxibustion practitioners.
Moxibustion has likely been used, in one form or another, since humans began to use fire for warmth and cooking. Moxibustion, in its rawest sense, was probably used to treat cold pain by warming the body by a cozy fire. Later, moxibustion became a treatment using hot stones wrapped in animal skins for local hot compressions of sprains and other injuries.
Even later, healers noted that injuries responded to warmth delivered from small bits of hay or dried plant leaves, lit on fire - in close proximity to the body. Eventually the moxa plant was selected as the ignition material.
Unlike other herb-based therapies like herbology, moxibustion is performed one of two ways - via direct or indirect contact with the skin. In direct, the practitioner prepares the mugwort by grinding up leaves, then forming it into cones. These cones are burned while resting on the skin at traditional acupuncture points. While some treatments involve burning it directly on the skin - which can lead to scarring - generally practitioners place some sort of substance between the leaves and skin, such as a thin slice of ginger or even a layer of salt.
The indirect technique involves forming the moxa into a roll, like a cigar, and lighting the end. The therapist inserts acupuncture needles into the body and then uses the burning moxa (a smoldering herb) to heat the needles, and to warm the acupuncture points. The metal of the needles transfers the heat into the body.
There are three aspects to the theory behind the effects of this treatment. The first is that mugwort itself has specific properties: the smell it gives off is therapeutic, and the body benefits from being in such close proximity to this medicinal herb. The second is that intense heat causes endorphins and healing agents to rush into the affected area. The third is that the indirect heat improves circulation to aching muscles and sore joints.