By Michael Turk
One of the least invasive but most effective means of relieving chronic pain is heat. Anyone can feel the healing, soothing effects by holding the hot end of a moxa stick over a sore spot. With repeated application, the lasting benefits outweigh the short time it takes to learn this Asian therapy for pain. This brilliant innovation called suspended moxibustion stimulates acupuncture points, which release muscles and reduce pain quickly. Moxibustion’s action also improves circulation, boosts immunity, and restores flexibility.
What we call Asian medicine originated in China and spread throughout Asia; each country adopted the theories and adapted the techniques to its own culture. The words moxa, acumoxa, and moxibustion derive from the Japanese word mogusa (burning of mugwort). Today, Chinese medicine includes many new therapies since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) publication of the original texts 2,000 years ago.
Suspending heat over an acupoint was a new idea in the 18th century when a doctor of Chinese medicine wrote a book describing this new way to apply heat. The new therapy came to 19th-century France by a “traveler to the Orient” via Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon general, as reported by a prolific 19th-century American medical writer, Robley Dunglison.
Dunglison praised the moxa-stick method of relieving pain taught by his teacher, Baron Larrey, who had mastered the use of the burning stick suspended over the body; however, Dunglison wrote that he did not use moxibustion; he preferred the application of irritants to the skin, a common remedy for chronic pain.
In most cases a short series of treatments with counterirritants, irritants that counter pain and stimulate healing, relieve pain with long-lasting benefits. The more counterirritants are used, the more effective they become; the more pain pills are used, the less effective they become.
Since antiquity many different methods of heating acupoints have been developed in China. During the Song dynasty (960–1279), 1,000 years ago, methods were sought to reduce the risk of blistering. An old method placed a cone of moxa on the skin; when the patient said “too hot,” the therapist removed the cone. A new method used moxa rolled into a stick—the hot end pressed against a layer of cloth or paper covering the skin provided more heat and fewer blisters.
Then in 1717, during the early Qing dynasty (1644–1911), a Chinese country doctor published a self-care book called Great Ultimate Spirit Needle, the first book on suspended moxibustion, which became a best seller for more than 100 years. He wrote that a mysterious Taoist recluse calling himself Purple Aurora passed down the secret of heating acupoints without touching the body. The stick of moxa looks like a needle, which may be why he called the stick Great Ultimate Divine Needle or simply Magic Needle.
While the English colonists rebelled and formed the United States, knowledge of how to use a moxa stick as a folk remedy spread throughout China. Then in 1820, near the end of the Qing dynasty, a prestigious and prolific medical writer, Chen Xiuyuan, published a book, Great Ultimate Spirit Needle Methods, on techniques developed after 100 years of experimentation and refinement. Because he included the magic needle in his writings, this new, safe method gained popularity with acupuncturists and massage therapists.
The original moxa-stick book first published in 1717 was still a best seller when Larrey used moxa sticks on soldiers with good results. Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766–1842) was the French battlefield surgeon who suggested to Napoleon the humanitarian concept of a medical corps, noting that field hospitals, ambulances, and stretchers would save soldiers’ lives and improve the morale of his troops.
Baron Larrey preferred using the moxa stick on his patients, both soldiers and civilians. After his military service (1797–1815), he reported “happy and extraordinary results” on an assortment of disorders in his book, On the Use of the Moxa as a Therapeutical Agent (1822). Larrey testified to remarkable results in morbid cases; he also reported on failures he examined after death. Larrey asked his student Robley Dunglison to translate his book into English.
Robley Dunglison (1798–1869), the first great American medical writer and the father of preventive medicine, wrote more than 30 medical books. Dunglison described moxibustion and acupuncture as counterirritants in General Therapeutics (1836). The entry under “Actual Cauterants” discussed moxa: “Accordingly, the use of the moxa has … nervous influence; and many deep-seated pains have yielded to it, which had resisted the action of the ordinary counterirritants, though repeatedly applied.” (p. 338).
While discussing revulsive medicine Dunglison described using strong counterirritation to drain toxins in extreme cases. Then after discussing experimental and extreme measures to keep a sore issuing fluid for long periods, Dunglison wrote that he preferred blisters.
He noted that his teacher Baron Larrey preferred the gentle method of reddening the skin, “when they use the moxa, they endeavor to restrict its effects to the rubefaction it occasions.” Professor Dunglison taught that compared to other counterirritants, moxibustion was the best at relieving nerve pain and deep-seated pain. In addition, moxibustion could relieve pain when other counterirritants failed. Unfortunately, America was not ready for moxa.
More recently, in 1981, Roger Newman Turner and Royston H. Low described this folk medicine in their book, The Principles and Practice of Moxibustion, which detailed their experience of using moxibustion in clinical practice in England.
In the United States, Asian communities still use the moxa stick for pain, but it is not used much by Caucasian acupuncturists. A few massage schools that teach Asian massage also teach the moxa stick.
When the most sensitive patients arrive in my office with the most horrible pain, I marvel at the simplicity of the idea: Stimulate an acupoint by suspending the glowing hot tip of a moxa stick above the skin! It feels sooo good deep down where it hurts! Though it never pierces the skin, it reaches the deep pain like a magic needle.
Part of this article was excerpted from Fire Your Pain with Moxibustion by Michael Turk. See moxa stick therapy on YouTube channel getqi; also visit michaelturk.com.
Michael Turk teaches acupressure at Chico Therapy and Wellness Center and MoxaPressure at Chico Kodenkan. He treats patients at Back-to-Basics. Call 530-213-3332 for more information.
If you enjoyed “How the Moxa Stick Came to America” join me and other therapists for a night of healing with moxapressure, Every Tuesday 7:30 to 9:30 at Chico Kodenkan. Give and get a treatment with supervision. Space is limited. Call for information. Starts this August.