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Part  I:   AOM  Clinical  Procedures,  Safety,  Adverse  Events  (AEs)  and  Recommendations  to  Reduce  AEs

2.   Moxibustion

Safety/Adverse Events – A Review of the Literature

In  modern  U.S.  AOM  practice,  moxibustion  is  most  often  used  as  a  complement  to  the  practice   of  acupuncture.  Moxibustion  is  the  heating  of  a  point  on  the  skin  utilizing  moxa  in  various   forms.  The  most  commonly  used  herb  material  used  for  moxa  comes  from  Artemisia  vulgaris,   also  called  mugwort.  Practitioners  use  a  number  of  different  materials  for  moxibustion,  

including  various  shapes  of  mugwort  including  loose  moxa,  various  sizes  of  moxa  cones,  and  the   more  commonly  used  moxa  roll,  both  the  traditional  type  and  the  “smokeless”  type  

Practitioners  may  utilize  moxa  cones  or  moxa  sticks  for  warm  moxibustion,  warm  cylinder   moxibustion,  and,  in  certain  cases,  burning/scarring  moxa.    

Most  TCM  practitioners  utilize  moxibustion  therapy  along  with  needling  acupuncture  points  for   a  wide  range  of  disorders.  A  general  overview  can  be  found  in  the  text  Chinese  Acupuncture  and   Moxibustion.  (1)  The  use  of  moxibustion  is  widespread  and  studies  have  reported  effectiveness   in  a  wide  variety  of  conditions  from  musculoskeletal  complaints,  gastrointestinal  symptoms,   gynecologic  disorders,  breech  presentations,  stroke  rehabilitation,  and  complementary  care  for   cancer  symptoms,  to  the  treatment  of  infectious  diseases.  (2)  Licensed  acupuncture  

practitioners  have  extensive  training  in  the  many  and  varied  uses  of  moxibustion  therapy.  

There  have  been  few  retrospective  studies  of  the  safety  of  direct  and  indirect  moxibustion   treatment.  In  2010  Park  et  al.  (2)  attempted  to  review  the  medical  literature  and  provide  an   overview  of  adverse  events  associated  with  moxibustion.  While  data  was  limited,  the  clinical   trials  they  reviewed  identified  “rubefaction,  blistering,  itching  sensations,  discomfort  due  to   smoke,  general  fatigue,  stomach  upsets,  flare-­‐ups,  headaches,  and  burns”  as  adverse  events.  In   general,  they  concluded  that  practitioners  should  be  prepared  to  deal  with  burns,  allergic   reactions  and  infections  as  probable  adverse  events  of  moxa  therapies.  In  the  2013  report,  Xu   et  al.  (3)  report  AEs  associated  with  moxibustion  were  found  to  be  primarily  bruising,  burns,  and   cellulitis.  

Prospective  studies  of  moxibustion  therapy  alone  are  not  available  in  the  English  literature.  In   1999,  a  Japanese  study  (4)  failed  to  differentiate  between  adverse  events  associated  with   acupuncture  needling  and  that  associated  specifically  from  moxibustion.  Their  conclusion  was   that  “serious  or  severe  adverse  events  are  rare  in  standard  practice.”    

While  practitioners  can  probably  understand  the  association  of  burns  with  any  type  of  heat   therapy,  the  possibility  of  infection,  nausea  or  allergies  associated  with  moxa  therapy  is  less   self-­‐evident.  Infections  can  be  the  result  of  burns  that  disrupt  the  normal  function  of  the  skin   and  subcutaneous  barriers  to  infection.  One  case  associated  with  scarring  moxa  therapy   identified  an  epidural  (cervical)  abscess,  cellulitis  and  osteomyelitis  in  a  diabetic  woman  after  

repeated  direct  moxa  therapy.  (5)  Burns  from  any  therapeutic  modality  are  more  common  in   diabetic  patients.  (6)  

Infections  associated  with  moxibustion  may  also  be  a  result  of  other  practices  that  are  used   along  with  the  moxa  such  as  needling  or  scarring  therapies.  (2)  

Allergies  to  the  moxa  smoke,  or  response  to  the  volatile  substances  such  as  borneol  in  the  moxa   smoke  may  create  nausea  or  allergic  reactions.  “Under  normal  operating  conditions  neither   volatile  nor  carbon  monoxide  [associated  with  moxa  smoke]  would  present  a  safety  hazard.”  (6)   With  proper  ventilation,  the  toxicity  of  moxa  smoke  is  probably  minimal.  (7,8)  

Chinese  medical  literature  also  reports  only  minimal  AEs  associated  with  moxibustion   techniques.  A  few  reports  in  the  Chinese  literature  on  the  adverse  events  associated  with   moxibustion  mainly  detail  some  local  AEs  such  as  burning  of  the  skin,  and  skin  allergies   associated  with  moxibustion  practice.  (9)  

Effects  of  moxibustion  on  chemical  parameters  of  health  are  limited,  suggesting  that  except  for   AEs  such  as  burns,  moxibustion  is  a  relatively  safe  procedure.  In  a  study  published  in  2011,   researchers  found  that  indirect  moxibustion  is  generally  considered  safe.  (10)  

One  case  report  of  hepatitis  in  the  medical  literature  was  inaccurately  identified  as  being   associated  with  moxa  use.  This  report  stated  that  a  patient  “presumably  acquired  hepatitis  C   through  sharing  of  infected  knives  during  the  process  of  scarification  or  through  moxibustion  if   it  involved  the  use  of  needles  .  .  .”  (11)  

Contraindications  for  direct  or  scarring  moxibustion  involve  the  sensitive  areas  of  the  body,   such  as  the  face  (due  to  the  possibility  of  burns,  and  also  to  avoid  getting  smoke  directly  into   the  eyes  or  nose),  the  nipples  and  the  genitals  (due  to  sensitivity)  and  within  the  hairline  (as   hair  can  burn).  O'Connor  and  Bensky  in  Acupuncture:  A  Comprehensive  Text  (12)  reinforce  the   need  to  avoid  the  head  and  face  for  moxibustion  by  reporting  that  ancient  texts  advised  caution   or  prohibition  when  applying  moxibustion  to  the  following  points:  Shangxing  (DU  

23),  Chengqi  (ST  1),  Sibai  (ST  2),  Touwei  (ST  8),  Jingming  (BL  1),  Zanzhu  (BL  2),  Sizhukong  (SJ   23),  Heliao  (LI  19),  Yingxiang  (LI  20),  and  Renying  (ST  9).    

Preventing Moxibustion Adverse Events Burns

Practitioners  performing  moxibustion  should  avoid  causing  burns  (except  when  performing   scarring  moxibustion)  and  be  aware  that  each  person  has  a  different  tolerance  to  heat.  It  is   important  to  be  especially  careful  with  persons  who  have  conditions  where  sensitivity  of  local  

nerves  may  be  diminished,  such  as  in  neural  injury,  diabetes  mellitus,  or  pathology  resulting  in   paralysis,  because  such  persons  are  especially  susceptible  to  burns.    

When  using  indirect  moxa  on  the  needle,  be  sure  to  protect  the  patient’s  skin  from  any  falling   moxa  or  ashes.  If  using  direct  moxa  or  scarring  techniques,  it  is  suggested  that  the  practitioner   fully  explain  the  technique  to  the  patient  and  ask  the  patient  to  sign  an  informed,  written   consent  form  before  using  this  technique.    

If  a  patient  has  been  burned,  infection  is  the  primary  concern.  If  the  burn  is  a  very  small  first   degree  burn,  current  practice  is  to  run  cool  water  over  the  burn  (never  ice),  and  then  apply   sterile  gauze  secured  to  the  skin  with  medical  tape.  Over-­‐the-­‐counter  burn  creams  may  also  be   used  as  per  the  package  directions.  If  a  burn  is  severe,  or  if  there  is  a  concern  with  infection,   refer  the  patient  to  a  physician.  

Burns  to  the  practitioner  can  also  occur  when  proper  precautions  are  not  taken.  See  Part  III  for   details  of  safe  moxa  practices.  

Safety Guidelines to Prevent Moxa Burns

Critical   • Take  a  careful  patient  history  to  identify  neuropathies  or  other   conditions  that  might  limit  a  patient’s  response  to  pain  or  the   ability  to  sense  heat.  

• During  moxa  therapy  the  practitioner  must  remain  in  the  room   at  all  times.  

• Avoid  direct  moxibustion  on  the  face,  within  the  hairline,  or  in   other  highly  sensitive  areas.  

• Anticipate  and  shield  a  patient  from  falling  ash  when  utilizing   needle-­‐top  moxa.  


Recommended   • The  practitioner  should  not  attempt  to  multi-­‐task  during  the   application  of  moxa  therapies.  

• The  practitioner  should  monitor  the  skin  temperature  and   amount  of  heat  generated  by  moxa,  and  not  rely  solely  on   patient  feedback  about  heat  sensations  when  utilizing  any  form   of  moxibustion.  

Recommended   • Rooms  in  which  moxa  is  to  be  used  should  be  equipped  with   water  and  a  fire  extinguisher.  


Secondary Infection from Moxa Burns

Infections  associated  with  moxibustion  are  secondary  adverse  events  related  to  burns.  Burn   prevention  is  critical.When  more  than  1  cm  of  skin  is  involved  with  a  burn,  practitioners  need  to   assess  the  amount  of  skin  damage  and  consider  a  referral  to  a  medical  practitioner  for  


Safety Guidelines to Prevent Secondary Infection from Moxa Burns Critical   • Prevent  moxa  burns.  

• Paying  close  attention  to  patient  comfort  and  skin  reactions   during  all  treatments  can  prevent  second  degree  burns,  which   are  more  likely  to  become  infected  due  to  depth  of  tissue   damage.  

• Follow  Safety  Guidelines  for  Hand  Sanitation  before  and  after   treating  any  burns  as  potentially  infectious  material  may  be   present.  

• Wash  all  burns  that  do  occur  with  cool  running  water   immediately.  


Recommended   • Measure  and  chart  the  diameter  and  location  of  any  burns   occurring  as  a  result  of  moxa  therapies.  

Recommended   • Assess  the  amount  of  damage  and  refer  to  a  western  medical   practitioner  if  needed.  

Nausea or Other Adverse Reactions to Moxa Smoke

Both  practitioners  and  patients  may  have  a  reaction  to  inhaling  moxa  smoke.  Such  reactions  are   usually  temporary  and  can  be  minimized  by  proper  ventilation  of  the  treatment  room.  

Safety Guidelines to Prevent Adverse Reactions to Moxa Smoke

Critical   • Rooms  in  which  moxibustion  is  performed  must  have  proper   ventilation.  


Recommended   • Practitioners  should  utilize  air  filter  units  which  include  HEPA   filters  when  performing  moxibustion.  

Recommended   • Consider  other  options  for  treatment  instead  of  burning  moxa   for  patients  with  a  history  of  significant  asthma  or  other   reactions  to  smoke.  

Other Heat Therapies

Infrared  and  TDP  (Teding  Diancibo  Pu)  lamps  are  used  by  practitioners  to  warm  the  patient,  or   specific  areas  of  a  patient.  TDP  lamps  consist  of  a  heating  element  on  an  adjustable  arm  that   may  be  placed  above  the  patient  and  is  used  to  warm  the  patient’s  skin.  The  heating  element  in   the  lamp  may  reach  a  temperature  that  will  burn  a  patient.  It  is  imperative  that  a  TDP  lamp  be   monitored  carefully  when  in  use,  and  that  unexpected  movements  of  the  heating  element  are   prevented.  Some  lamps  may  slowly  lower  during  the  course  of  a  treatment,  resulting  in  a  burn   over  the  area  being  warmed.  Mechanical  failure  of  the  heat  lamp  itself  may  occur  during   treatment  allowing  the  arm  and  heating  element  to  rapidly  descend  near  or  onto  the  patient’s   skin.  To  prevent  such  a  burn,  TDP  lamps  should  be  carefully  checked  for  defects  before  use.  

Defective  or  dysfunctional  heating  devices  including  TDP  lamps  should  not  be  used  in  any  clinic.  

In  the  event  of  such  a  burn,  the  injured  area  should  be  evaluated  by  a  physician.  

There  are  no  prospective  studies  on  the  use  of  heat  lamps  or  other  heat  therapies  in  AOM   practice.  One  study  utilizing  heat  therapies  in  cancer  treatment  identified  AEs  of  “thermal   lesions”  from  this  practice.  (13)  Heat  can  affect  skin  in  a  variety  of  ways,  including  biological  and   molecular  changes  (14)  although  these  effects  appear  minimal  when  applied  intermittently  in   clinical  practice.  Significant  adverse  events  of  heat  lamps  and  other  heat  therapies  is  most  likely   limited  to  burns,  the  secondary  effects  of  burns  (infection)  and  the  possibility  of  fire.  See  above   information  about  moxibustion  for  common  practices  to  limit  these  AEs.  

In  one  retrospective  study  of  the  frequency  of  burns  from  therapeutic  modalities  performed  in   Korea,  hot  packs  were  twice  as  likely  to  cause  a  burn  as  was  the  application  of  moxibustion.  

Other  heat  therapies  that  were  sources  of  burns  in  patient  care  included  the  use  of  electric   heating  pads  and  radiant  heat/heat  lamps.  (15)  

Safety Guidelines for Heat Therapies Other than Moxa

Critical   • Heat  lamps  should  not  be  used  on  infants,  children,  

incapacitated  persons,  or  sleeping  or  unconscious  persons.    

• Prevent  water,  moisture,  liquids  or  metal  objects  from  coming   in  contact  with  the  lamp.  Do  NOT  use  this  lamp  in  wet  or  moist   environments.  

• Do  not  use  if  any  part  of  the  lamp  is  cracked.  Do  not  allow  any   part  of  the  lamp  to  touch  accessory  equipment.    

• When  heat  lamps  are  used  on  patients  who  have  a  reduced   response  to  heat,  the  use  of  heat  must  be  monitored  at  all   times.  


Recommended   • Do  not  use  heat  lamps  in  close  proximity  to  combustible   materials  (litter,  paper,  etc.)  or  to  materials  adversely  affected   by  heat  or  drying.  

• Take  a  careful  patient  history  to  identify  diabetes,  neuropathies   or  other  conditions  that  might  limit  a  patient’s  response  to  pain   or  the  ability  to  sense  heat.  

• Do  not  use  oversensitive  skin  or  persons  having  poor  blood   circulation.  Sufficient  temperatures  are  generated  that  may   cause  burns.  

• Heat  therapies  must  be  closely  monitored  by  practitioners.    

• The  practitioner  should  monitor  the  skin  temperature  and   amount  of  heat  generated  by  a  heat  lamp  and  not  rely  solely  on   patient  feedback  about  heat  sensations.  

Recommended   • When  patient  information  is  unclear,  request  an  opinion  from  a   physician  before  using  a  heat  lamp  on  the  limbs  of  a  patient   with  diabetic  or  other  neuropathies.  


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