The practices of traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine are most widely known for their tiny, solid needles (unlike the hollow needles used in allopathic medicine). However, there are other techniques developed for use in Chinese and Japanese medicine that do not use needles. These include moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, and acupressure.
Moxibustion uses an herb called mugwort (moxa in Japanese) to warm acupoints and meridians. Sometimes the herb is rolled into small cones, applied to the skin, and lit using an incense stick. The herb is removed before it reaches the skin. I also often use a compressed form of the herb rolled into a stick, lit to form an ember. This does not touch my patients’ skin. Instead, I hold it over the skin and ask my patient to let me know when the point feels hot. I also use moxa at the end of needles to convey the heat deeper into the point.
Did you know that the Chinese character that refers to acupuncture also refers to moxibustion? They are literally inseparable in Chinese!
During cupping, a silicone, glass, or plastic cup is placed on the skin and the practitioner removes the air inside the cup using suction, a pump, or a flame. The lack of air inside the cup causes skin and connective tissue to get pulled up into the cup. This technique is used to release stuck tissues or pathogens which can cause pain and illness. The technique should be painless, and feels like a strong massage. The cups may be left in place or slid across lubricated skin, depending on the desired outcome. Cupping causes red and purple spots under the surface of the skin. This is a normal and expected outcome of cupping, and should resolve within a week or two.
When using gua sha, a smooth, blunt implement is scraped over the skin to move and release stuck tissues or pathogens, relieving pain and illness. Like cupping, gua sha causes red or purple spots to form under the skin, though the marks from gua sha look a little different from cupping marks. These are a normal and intended outcome of treatment, and should resolve within a week or so.
Acupressure uses the same theories and treatment plans I use in acupuncture sessions but without the use of needles by pressing on the points with fingers or applying small pressure pellets or pieces of metals to points as a take-home treatment. All of my patients get some acupressure during their treatments, as I always press on points before needling them. For those who do not want needles, or in cases when I don't feel a needle is necessary, I can use only acupressure. Many patients request pellets for continued treatment effects at home - they can tap on the pellet to re-stimulate the point any time they choose.