Moxibustion in North American Acupuncture: Historical Perspective
Tim H. Tanaka, Ph.D.
Although moxibustion has been an integral part of the original concepts of acupuncture, I was surprised to learn that it is somewhat ignored by many acupuncturists in Western countries. A growing number of Canadians have experienced acupuncture, yet only a few have ever tried moxibustion treatment.
Why has this strange phenomenon occurred in North America? One reason could be related to one historical event that took place in China which opened many Westerners eyes to the hitherto unknown possibilities of non-western medicine.
In 1971 when President Nixon visited China, New York Times foreign correspondent James Reston wrote a personal account about how acupuncture reduced his post surgical abdominal pain. His well-publicized article is considered the first news of acupuncture to hit the mass English-speaking media. The curiosity and excitement generated further intensified shortly after, when successful open heart surgery using only acupuncture as anaesthesia was reported1. A sharp incline in the number of acupuncture studies published in English has strengthened the case for acupuncture’s potential as a painkiller. The technique used in the Chinese hospital involved application of intense electric current using inserted acupuncture needles as electrodes. Since there is a similarity to conventional physiotherapy procedures, this modern version of acupuncture technique called electro-acupuncture was quickly adapted into many pain management clinics in North America as an additional analgesic method. Accordingly, a number of training courses in acupuncture have also been established. Most of the courses offered (especially the ones for medical professionals such as MDs, physiotherapists, Chiropractors, etc.) largely focus on electro-acupuncture and do not cover in depth many traditional acupuncture techniques such as moxibustion.
Although the initial excitement about acupuncture anesthesia three decades ago has long been over (surgery is rarely attempted with acupuncture alone, even in China1), electro-acupuncture is still very commonly used technique in North America today, especially for the temporal management of pain. It is interesting to note that electro-acupuncture is also one of the main techniques used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners (TCM is the most common acupuncture system used in the US and Canada. See www.acupuncture-treatment.com/styles.html to learn more about different acupuncture styles).
In my opinion, the history of acupuncture in North America basically began with the modern version of acupuncture called electro-acupuncture which does not typically involve Eastern diagnosis and other ancient techniques such as moxibustion. The influence has carried on thereafter.
1. Cheng, T.O. Acupuncture anaesthesia for open heart surgery, Heart, 2000, 83:256