Another TCM modality that is often used with good results in the treatment of herpes zoster (shingles) is moxibustion. Moxabustion is the burning of moxa over acupuncture points on the body to penetrate the muscles and activate blood circulation. The main ingredient in moxa is the herb Ai Ye, or wormwood leaf.
Moxa comes in many forms. A moxa stick looks like a cigar. The end is lit and the lit end is held approximately 1 inch from the skin surface. The stick can be moved in a circular motion or used in a pecking motion over the point for several minutes until the area is pink and pleasantly warm. Moxa sticks can be used over DU14, a point located below the C7 vertebra at the base of the neck, to boost the immune system. Moxa sticks can be used to warm the local area.
In the October 2000 issue of the Journal of Chinese Medicine, there is an article on the use of moxa to treat herpes zoster, “Treatment by Moxabustion, Herpes Zoster”. In ancient China, the blisters associated with shingles were likened to a creeping snake, because they often formed a line around the torso. The first patches of lesions were known as the head of the snake. The last were the tail of the snake. And the healthy areas in between were called the middle of the snake.
This article talks of treating the three patterns of herpes zoster with wheat grain sized moxa cones. In TCM, herpes zoster is differentiated into three patterns of disharmony: Liver and Gallbladder Fire blazing, Spleen and Stomach damp heat and Qi and Blood stagnation.
Liver and Gallbladder Fire manifests as red lesions and skin with burning pain and heat, dry mouth with a bitter taste, constipation, yellow urine, irritability, red tongue with a yellow coat and a wiry, rapid pulse.
Spleen and Stomach heat presents with blisters containing thick and yellowish fluid that are easily broken, poor appetite, abdominal distention, pale tongue body with a sticky white or yellow coating, and a slippery rapid pulse.
Qi and Blood stagnation is usually the pattern with post herpetic pain and presents with a purple tongue, dark color at the former site of the herpes lesions, poor sleep and a wiry, thready pulse.
In all three patterns, the treatment method is to use 5 of the small cones at each treatment point. Some oil is wiped on each point to prevent burns, and one at a time the cone is lit and left to burn until the patient feels a hot sensation. Then the cone is immediately removed and the next cone lit until all five have been applied to the point. For all three patterns, moxa is burned at the head of the snake (.5 cm outside of the first lesions to appear), the middle of the snake (clear area between lesions) and the tail of the snake (.5 cm outside the last lesions to appear).
For the Liver and Gallbladder Fire pattern, LV-2 and GB34 are added. For Spleen and Stomach Damp heat, ST-44 and SP-6 are added. And for Qi and Blood stagnation, BL-17 is added.
Treatment using points on the “snake” is likened to securing its tail, chopping off its head and cutting thru its body, so that the snake dies. I’m sure that anyone who has known the pain of shingles will appreciate the metaphor!