02.06.2021 Eastern Healing

Moxibustion makes a return

Olivier LeJus reports on new hopes for TB treatment based on the ancient herb mugwort

Although acupuncture and Oriental herbal medicine are its most popular expressions, Traditional Chinese Medicine is a combination of several modalities which also include a form of exercise called Qigong, Chinese massage (tuina) and moxibustion.

The last is a therapeutic technique, which involves burning a small quantity of an herb called mugwort, or Artemisia Vulgaris, on selected parts of the body. Despite its legendary therapeutic status, mugwort can be found growing in the side of the road in many parts of China and Japan.

It is not clear when the special properties of this herb were first discovered, but references on the use of moxibustion (moxa) to increase longevity are mentioned in ancient manuscripts as early as the fifth century AD. According to these texts, burning small portions of this herb on selected acupuncture points was a common practice to help keep sickness at bay. It was a convenient form of home treatment since it was free and required little training to administer.

Today, moxa is still used extensively, both for home treatments and in professional clinics throughout East Asia.

In Japan, where acupuncturists and moxibustion specialists have separate government registrations, it has been turned into an art form. Many grades of moxa are available in that country, each one with a specific burning quality and therapeutic application.

In 2010, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organisation) formally recognised both acupuncture and moxibustion as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage, giving both therapies equal importance.

Recent laboratory testing in Japan has confirmed the special therapeutic properties of mugwort.

It was found that the use of moxibustion increases the white blood cell count in the blood dramatically (as much as twice its normal count with repeated use). It also produces analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, and increases the body’s capacity to produce antibodies.

Tuberculosis (TB) is an aggressive infectious bacterial disease, which caused an estimated worldwide death toll of a billion people in the 19th and 20th centuries. Long before antibiotics were discovered, moxibustion was used successfully in East Asia for the treatment of tuberculosis for many centuries.

TB causes inflammation and the development of lesions and nodules in the lungs, gradually spreading to the lymph nodes and other organs. The disease had almost been eradicated in the West by the mid 1950s, as the result of improved living conditions and the discovery of antibiotics. But since the emergence of the HIV/AIDS virus in the early 1980s, TB has once again become the main cause of death in many developing countries.

In 2016, more people died from tuberculosis worldwide than HIV and malaria combined.

Although antibiotics can still be very effective, the tuberculosis bacteria is difficult to penetrate, and it has an ability to survive in multiple locations in the body. As a result, a patient has to take at least four different drugs for at least six months. With the prevalence of new strains of drug resistant tuberculosis, the recommended dose is six toxic drugs taken between for nine and 24 months. These have many permanent side effects, and their cost is prohibitive.

Moxafrica was developed by a British charity organisation in 2009 to investigate whether moxibustion, which had been used effectively for the treatment of tuberculosis in Japan in the 1930s, could still be an effective option in poor countries where the new strains of drug resistant TB are becoming increasingly prominent.

According to that organisation, the common form of tuberculosis is now curable in 82% of cases with cheap drugs, but the new strain of TB, which is resistant to the two strongest drugs, is only curable in 55% of cases and at a much higher cost.

Moxafrica has conducted clinical trials in Uganda, South Africa and North Korea where the new strain of drug resistant TB is having lethal consequences. For ethical reasons, during the clinical trial, one study group had drug therapy only, while the second group received the same drugs plus moxibustion treatments.

The North Korean study recorded a 90% reduction in symptoms in the moxa group compared to 64% in the control group, and these improvements occurred at a much faster rate. The North Korean moxa patients also recorded an 85% recovery rate against 60% in the control group.

In the African countries, the percentages of improvement and recovery were similar with around 22% difference between the two groups. The cost of the moxibustion was around US$20 per patient.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether moxibustion alone will be successful, but let’s face it we are now living in difficult times for the world and as the economist E. F Schumacher famously said:

“We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads whether we’re going to be successful because if we don’t do the right thing, we will be doing the wrong thing, and we will just be part of the disease and not the cure.”

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com