Are you one of the 40% of stroke patients experiencing pain and impaired movement due to spasticity or spasms? While there are many rehabilitation options available for spasms, they can be costly. In fact, some therapies only produce temporary relief and cause additional adverse effects. Because of these limitations, researchers are continuously looking for new ways to treat this problem. Some of these therapies are a bit less conventional but still manage to improve function and lessen symptoms.
One method popular across East Asian countries is warm-needle moxibustion, a combination of acupuncture and moxibustion. Most of us are familiar with acupuncture. But, what exactly is moxibustion? It is a term that comes from the Japanese word for “burning herb.” More specifically, moxibustion refers to the burning of moxa, ground leaves harvested from the mugwort plant. These leaves are aged and shaped into a cone or cylindrical stick called a moxa. A practitioner ignites the moxa either directly on or adjacent to the skin to stimulate areas of the body. When combined with warm-needle acupuncture, the burning moxa stick is affixed to the handle of the acupuncture needle during acupoint stimulation. The shaft of the needle conducts the heat from the burning moxa, subsequently stimulating and warming the surface and deep tissue.
How does warm-needle moxibustion work?
Warm-needle moxibustion is a type of thermotherapy, which is the use of heat as therapy. Previous research exploring the mechanism of warm-needle moxibustion found it creates a high-temperature zone within the local tissue. This process accelerates metabolism, dilates blood vessels, and decreases nerve excitability, which are all key factors in alleviating muscle spasms. By combining the heat produced by the moxa with the direct acupoint stimulation, warm-needle moxibustion capitalizes on the effectiveness of both therapies with the hopes to surpass both acupuncture or electroacupuncture.
Does warm-needle moxibustion really relieve spasms?
Researchers looked at the effectiveness and safety of warm-needle moxibustion for post-stroke spasticity. They reviewed 12 Chinese studies with a total of 878 participants. The treatments in the studies all lasted about 20 to 30 minutes. A practitioner inserted the needles and used one to three moxa cones or sticks for each acupoint. Patients received treatment once a day in all studies. Researchers looked at how this treatment affected spasms, motor function, and activities of daily living.
Together, the studies showed warm-needle moxibustion was able to significantly alleviate spasms in both the arms and legs of stroke patients. Compared to acupuncture, warm-needle moxibustion was more effective in relieving symptoms. Similar results were found for both motor function and activities of daily living, with warm-needle moxibustion shown to be more effective than both electroacupuncture and acupuncture. These findings suggest warm-needle moxibustion may be a useful and safe option for treating spasticity after stroke. However, researchers need to conduct more extensive clinical trials to confirm these findings. Regardless, if you are someone who still struggles with spasticity despite trying every conventional treatment, warm-needle moxibustion may be a supplemental avenue worth exploring.
The first author of the original article was Liu Yang, School of Nursing, Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Fuzhou, China.