Moxibustion for alleviating side effects of chemotherapy or radiotherapy in people with cancer

The issue
Moxibustion is used in traditional Chinese medicine to enhance quality of life and relieve the side effects of conventional treatments for a variety of diseases. As its application involves the burning of a herbal preparation, it can also cause some undesirable side effects itself, such as allergic reactions, burns and infection.

The aim of the review
We conducted this systematic review to understand whether moxibustion can reduce common side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and improve well-being in people with cancer.

Selection criteria
We reviewed 29 studies involving 2569 people with different types of cancer, receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy or both.

What are the main findings?
We found some small single studies showing various beneficial effects of moxibustion on increasing blood cells and promoting immunological function, decreasing gastrointestinal symptoms caused by toxicity of chemotherapy or radiotherapy (such as nausea and vomiting), and improving quality of life. However, the poor reporting and high risk of bias in study methods reduced the certainty of the evidence.

What is the certainty of the evidence?
The evidence was of low or very low-certainty.

What are the conclusions?
There is presently no good evidence to support or oppose the use of moxibustion in people receiving treatment for cancer. High-quality studies are needed, which should include reporting of adverse effects.

Authors' conclusions: 

Limited, low-certainty evidence suggests that moxibustion treatment may help to reduce the haematological and gastrointestinal toxicities of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, improving QoL in people with cancer; however, the evidence is not conclusive, and we cannot rule out benefits or risks with this treatment. High-quality studies that report adverse effects are needed.

Read the full abstract...

Moxibustion, a common treatment in traditional Chinese medicine, involves burning herbal preparations containing Artemisia vulgaris on or above the skin at acupuncture points. Its intended effect is to enhance body function, and it could reduce the side effects of chemotherapy or radiotherapy and improve quality of life (QoL) in people with cancer.


To assess the effects of moxibustion for alleviating side effects associated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or both in people with cancer.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) in the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE via Ovid, Embase via Ovid and AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database) from their inception to February 2018. We also searched databases in China including the Chinese BioMedical Literature Database (CBM), Chinese Medical Current Contents (CMCC), TCMonline, Chinese Dissertation Database (CDDB), China Medical Academic Conference (CMAC) and Index to Chinese Periodical Literature from inception to August 2017. Registries for clinical trials and other resources were also searched.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing moxibustion treatment, including moxa cone and moxa stick, versus sham, no treatment or conventional treatment.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors (HWZ and FC) independently extracted data on study design, participants, treatment and control intervention, and outcome measures, and they also assessed risk of bias in the included studies. We performed meta-analyses, expressing dichotomous outcomes as risk ratios (RR) and continuous outcomes as mean differences (MD), with 95% confidence intervals (CI).

Main results: 

We included 29 RCTs involving 2569 participants. Five RCTs compared moxibustion versus no treatment, 15 compared moxibustion plus conventional treatment versus conventional treatment, one compared moxibustion versus sham moxibustion, and eight compared moxibustion versus conventional medicine. The overall risk of bias was high in 18 studies and unclear in 11 studies. Studies measured outcomes in various ways, and we could rarely pool data.

Moxibustion versus no treatment: low-certainty evidence from single small studies suggested that moxibustion was associated with higher white blood cell counts (MD 1.77 × 109/L; 95% CI 0.76 to 2.78; 80 participants, low-certainty evidence) and higher serum haemoglobin concentrations (MD 1.33 g/L; 95% CI 0.59 to 2.07; 66 participants, low-certainty evidence) in people with cancer, during or after chemotherapy/radiotherapy, compared with no treatment. There was no evidence of an effect on leukopenia (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.10 to 2.56; 72 participants, low-certainty evidence) between study groups. The effects on immune function (CD3, CD4, and CD8 counts) were inconsistent.

Moxibustion versus sham moxibustion: low-certainty evidence from one study (50 participants) suggested that moxibustion improved QoL (measured as the score on the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-C30 (EORTC QLQ-C30)) compared with sham treatment (MD 14.88 points; 95% CI 4.83 to 24.93). Low-certainty evidence from this study also showed reductions in symptom scores for nausea and vomiting (MD −38.57 points, 95% CI −48.67 to −28.47) and diarrhoea (MD −13.81, 95% CI −27.52 to −0.10), and higher mean white blood cell count (MD 1.72 × 109/L, 95% CI 0.97 to 2.47), serum haemoglobin (MD 2.06 g/L, 95% CI 1.26 to 2.86) and platelets (MD 210.79 × 109/L, 95% CI 167.02 to 254.56) when compared with sham moxibustion.

Moxibustion versus conventional medicines: low-certainty evidence from one study (90 participants) suggested that moxibustion improved WBC count eight days after treatment ended compared with conventional medicines (MD 0.40 × 109/L; 95% CI 0.15 to 0.65). Low-certainty evidence from two studies (235 participants) suggested moxibustion improved serum haemoglobin concentrations compared with conventional medicines (MD 10.28 g/L; 95% CI 4.51 to 16.05).

Moxibustion plus conventional treatment versus conventional treatment alone: low-certainty evidence showed that moxibustion plus conventional treatment was associated with lower incidence and severity of leukopenia (WHO grade 3 to 4) (RR 0.14, 95% CI 0.01 to 2.64; 1 study, 56 participants), higher QoL scores on the EORTC QLQ-C30 (MD 8.85 points, 95% CI 4.25 to 13.46; 3 studies, 134 participants, I² = 26%), lower symptom scores for nausea and vomiting (RR 0.43, 95% CI 0.25 to 0.74; 7 studies, 801participants; I² = 19%), higher white blood cell counts (data not pooled due to heterogeneity), higher serum haemoglobin (MD 3.97 g/L, 95% CI 1.40 to 6.53; 2 studies, 142 participants, I² = 0%). There was no difference in platelet counts between the two groups (MD 13.48 × 109/L; 95% CI −16.00 to 42.95; 2 studies, 142 participants; I² = 34%).

Most included studies did not report related adverse events, such as burning or allergic reactions.