Moxibustion is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves burning moxa, a cone or stick made of ground mugwort leaves, on or near your body’s meridians and acupuncture points.

Practitioners believe that the resulting heat helps stimulate these points and improves the flow of qi (energy) in your body. According to traditional Chinese medicine practices, this increased qi circulation can help with a range of health issues, from chronic pain to digestive troubles.

Read on to learn more about moxibustion, including how it’s done and the research behind it.

Moxibustion can be applied directly or indirectly.

In direct moxibustion, the moxa cone rests on your body at the treatment point. The practitioner lights the cone and lets it burn slowly until your skin begins to turn red. Once you begin to feel heat, the practitioner removes it.

Moxa can also be placed on the acupuncture needle and ignited. It burns on the needle until it’s extinguished. The heat travels through the needle to the acupuncture point.

Indirect moxibustion is more commonly practiced. It’s also a safer option, since the burning moxa doesn’t actually touch your skin. Instead, the practitioner will hold it about an inch from your body. They’ll remove it once your skin becomes red and warm.

Another method of indirect moxibustion uses an insulating layer of salt or garlic between the cone and your skin. In another option, “moxa boxes” may be filled with moxa, ignited, and placed on the body.

Moxibustion is traditionally done by a skilled practitioner.

If you’re not sure how to find one, consider starting your search by looking for an acupuncturist in your area. Moxibustion is often done alongside acupuncture, and some acupuncturists also do moxibustion.

You can try indirect moxibustion on your own, but it’s safest to have a professional give you a demonstration first. They can show you not only how to do it without burning yourself, but also the best areas to focus on for your needs.

Moxibustion is perhaps best known for being an alternative way to help with breech presentation. This happens when a baby is positioned feet-first in the birth canal, which makes the birthing process much more difficult.

It’s usually done around 34 weeks with indirect moxibustion around an acupuncture point called Urinary Bladder 67, sometimes called Zhiyin or reaching yin. This spot lies on the outer part of your pinkie toe.

For safety and effectiveness, it’s best to have this done by a professional. Some hospitals, especially in the United Kingdom, even have midwives and obstetricians on staff trained in acupuncture and moxibustion. Acupuncturists should also be licensed by your state.

A 2018 review of studies on moxibustion for breech presentation concluded that there’s some evidence that it may work. But the review authors also noted that there still isn’t a ton of high-quality research on the subject.

People use moxibustion for a range of other issues, including:

  • gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation
  • menstrual cramps
  • pain, including pain from arthritis, joint or muscle pain, and chronic pain
  • cancer-related nausea
  • urinary incontinence
  • fertility
  • asthma symptoms
  • eczema
  • fatigue
  • cold and flu prevention

A 2010 evaluation of reviews looked at the use of moxibustion for:

  • ulcerative colitis
  • cancer
  • stroke rehabilitation
  • high blood pressure
  • pain
  • breech presentation

The authors noted that nearly every review had conflicting results. On top of that, they also noted that most of the studies had other problems as well, including small sample sizes and a lack of measures to reduce bias.

More recent studies are more promising.

There’s moderate evidence for the effectiveness of moxibustion in pain and symptom management in knee osteoarthritis. A 2017 review of studies comparing moxibustion to drug therapies and sham treatment concluded that moxibustion was effective.

Additional research has shown that when combining moxibustion with acupuncture, there’s an increase bone density in patients with osteoporosis. A 2020 review of studies concluded moxibustion and acupuncture can increase bone density and may reduce pain.

Moxibustion may be worth a try if you’re exploring complementary and integrative treatments, but there are a few risks.

The biggest risk comes from how easy it is to burn yourself in the process. For this reason, it’s best to stick with indirect moxibustion, especially if you’re doing it on your own. This allows for some space between the burning moxa and your skin.

In addition, a 2014 review identified some potential side effects of moxibustion, including:

  • allergic reaction to moxa
  • sore throat or coughing from moxa smoke
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fetal distress and premature birth
  • dark patches of skin
  • basal cell carcinoma
pregnancy precautions

This review also noted that some women using moxibustion for breech presentation experienced nausea and contractions. Because of this, along with the risk of fetal distress and premature birth, it’s best to do moxibustion under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

Keep your doctor in the loop as well, in case something doesn’t feel quite right.

If you’re trying it at home, be aware that some people find the odor of moxa smoke to be very similar to cannabis smoke. If you live in place where cannabis use is illegal, this could potentially cause some problems with your neighbors or law enforcement.

Moxibustion is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that people use for a variety of health issues. Research on moxibustion is currently being performed for additional conditions.

It may be an alternative or complementary option for turning a breech baby, reducing knee pain, and building bone density.

If you want to try moxibustion, start by finding an experienced and licensed acupuncturist. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) provides board certification for acupuncturists.

You can try it on your own, but it’s still best to have it done professionally a few times so you know how to do it safely.