Yes. You read that right.
I just had to ask that question because that was the question I asked myself when I opened up my first box of moxa in my acupuncture class in my third year of TCM school. The label on the box read "Moxa Punk" which prompted me to ask myself, "What on earth is moxa punk???". Images of angry punks smashing guitars on a stage wearing leather and chains flashed through my head. I have to admit, I kind of liked that image and I intended to hang on to its intrinsic "street cred" value because at that moment, in my eyes, it had just raised acupuncture and TCM, to a whole new level of coolness.
Now, you may be wondering at this point what does "punk" have to do with what I do in my practice?
Before you do the infamous Steven Colbert eyebrow raise and give me the look that says, "WTF did you smoke for breakfast man???", hear me out.
You may have heard of or, you may have come across some reference to moxibustion at some point in your alternative treatment lifetime - as a patient, as a TCM student and at least, 95%, most definitely as a Registered Acupuncturist Or TCM Practitioner in your own practice.
I use THIS Punk a lot (in fact, I use it for pretty much 85% of my clinical cases and I can't seem to think of one thing it cannot help to alleviate):
FYI that ball of fluffy spongey stuff in the middle of this plate is the Punk that I have in my tweezers in the photo above BEFORE it gets compressed into a cone:
Just to be clear, I don't use THIS punk below at all (but it would be cool if Mr. Idol himself did swing by my practice and help me with a little shameless self promotion. If you're reading sir, I practice in Toronto, Canada and I know most of the words to "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell"):
What the $*/# is punk?
Moxa punk refers to the dried, prepared herb shown in the above pictures. It is often referred to in pinyin as Ai Ye or by its botanical name, artemisia argyi.
It is made when mugwort leaves are dried and processed to form this wooly and almost "kinetic sand-like", spongey texture. Bear in mind that though moxibustion usage is mainly found in Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, it is often employed in Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Tibetan traditional medicine as well.
Wikipedia actually has a great summary on what this substance is and is a good place to start for a big picture idea of what it is actually made of and how it is used. Forgive me if this link to wikipedia doesn't work. I still haven't quite figured out how to make the links work but if you cut and paste this on your browser search bar, you should be able to find this page.
How is it used?
Moxa is usually burned as part of the acupuncture treatment and it is this burning of moxa punk that is referred to as Moxibustion. There are several styles of moxibustion and what distinguishes these different styles is whether you burn the punk directly on the skin or burn it on something else (in this case, it means that the burning herbs do not touch the skin).
Yes, I was told several times by my professors in school that "in the good old ancient world" moxa punk was moulded and shaped into a cone and placed on the skin (over an acupoint of course) and then lit so that it would burn, and eventually scar the skin below. Nobody has yet been able to explain why moxa was used this way and why it was believed that scarring the skin permanently would be good for one's health. My only guess is that the damage incurred at the skin from the burning herb stimulated the immune system to kick into high gear and start the process of tissue repair and bump up the body's natural cellular repair systems and production of natural opioids and painkillers. Sure it could work but HELL NO! I would NOT recommend this type of moxibustion to anyone to either perform or to receive as a patient!
This is what I practice (yes, I can almost hear the collective sigh of relief now at this point of the blog entry) and I can assure you that it is a lot more comfortable than the previously mentioned form of moxibustion.
In this type of moxibustion, the punk is still moulded and shaped into a cone. It is however, placed on top of something else that protects the skin from the heat of the burning herb. Some people will use a thick slice of ginger as that protective barrier. Some others prefer using a thick layer of salt.
The method that I use in my own practice involves placing the punk in this metal moxa holder that I have in the palm of my hand - see picture to the right. The stem that you see pointing rightwards is actually hollow and there is a hole right at the bottom of the convex bowl-shaped part of this holder (pointing to the left of that picture.)
What I do with these components goes something like this:
I first insert the acupuncture needle into the acupoint that I intend to use.
Next, I shape the wooly punk into a cone shape and embed it into the concave side of this holder.
I then burn the punk and thread this whole device through the hole that I mentioned above, into the exposed end of the acupuncture needle and BAM! "Bob's your uncle!"
To the left, this is what the moxa looks like when it is placed on the end of the acupuncture needle.
This end is the side that gets burned. At this point I can't do this on myself and hold a camera, nor do I have a willing human lab rat to poke burning needles into so for now, the tea light will have to do in place of a patient.
Why on earth would you set a needle on fire like that?
The heat from the burning punk transmits from the bowl-shaped base of this moxa holder, to the stem and shaft of the needle, where it travels and penetrates deep down into the tissues below.
Moxa has properties that allow it to enter the liver, spleen and kidney channels. Its therapeutic actions include: warming the meridians, dispelling cold and dampness, and stopping bleeding.
The heat travels at this point, from the muscles to the energetic channels of the body. These channels are often referred to in clinical practice as the meridians (or jing-luo).
From here, the healing properties of the moxa travel to the areas where obstructions occur in the flow of qi or energy; causing pain, tenderness or aching. Since it is believed that stagnation and blockages of qi flow in the channels cause pain, it makes sense that the removal of these blockages, removes the pain.
The combined therapeutic actions of stimulating the affected acupuncture point(s) on the blocked meridian(s) with the heat from the burning moxa is what helps blood and qi to flow more freely and effectively. And it is this free flowing blood and qi that removes blockages and removes the pain (or swelling, inflammation, distension, etc) from the local area.
What I use moxa for?
Because of the ability of moxa to move stagnations and blockages to alleviate painful obstructions, moxa comes in particularly handy for pain! I like to use moxa as part of my acupuncture treatment for cases characterized by pain such as lower back pain, frozen shoulder, tendonitis, sprained ankles, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastric pain and knee pain, to name a few. It's not surprising that moxa is amazing for painful conditions.
Because of moxa's ability to warm meridians and channels, I use it to help warm muscles, joints and the body for cases that are characterized by cold conditions where exposure to cold (wind, drafts, winter, rain and dampness) tends to make the symptoms worse. Conditions like swollen arthritic joints that are worse in the winter or when it rains, flus and common colds, pneumonias, stomach pain that feels worse when the weather is damp or cold, or a general lack of energy or fatigue that tends to be worse in cold, dark or wet weather are examples of the ability of moxa to alleviate cold conditions with its warmth and heat.
Moxa is a favourite therapy of mine for gynaecological cases because of its pain-relieving properties and because of its amazing ability to slow or even stop bleeding. In cases like painful and heavy periods, irregular bleeding due to fibroids or hormonal fluctuations and, spotting or light bleeding in pregnancy, moxa becomes a very useful adjunctive therapy to use in an acupuncture session.
I could go on and on about moxa and its uses but I think I'll stop right here as this is probably quite a lot of information to chew on and digest for now. All I can say is that I cannot imagine how I used to practice acupuncture without it. It's been a game changer for me in the last few months since I started using it. Conditions that were healing well with acupuncture alone, just healed faster with the addition of moxa punk.
I still don't know why moxa wool is referred to as moxa punk but I'd like to believe that it just does what the punk rockers of the 1970's and 1980's did to electrify traditional rock and roll - it adds that special little bit more "oomph" and cranks up the firepower in an acupuncture treatment to make it work even faster and even more effectively when used for the right conditions that require it.
Punk will never die. Keep the fire burning!
Extra reading for the acugeeks out there:
For anyone who is interested in further reading of this fascinating herb and its medicinal uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine, I have put together a small list of websites that give the reader a nice introduction to moxa, moxibustion and how it applies to healing within the TCM universe. These are a little more set at a general layman's level but serve as an easy introduction to the world of moxibustion and how it is used in a TCM setting. (Apologies again for not being able to link you to their respective websites! I promise I am working on how I can figure this out!)