Acupuncture: An Ancient Medical Therapy With Modern Documentation

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In online horse chatter groups, ?off the beaten path? therapies or products are often a topic of heated debate.? Those who had success with something will swear by it and try to convince their friends, most of whom dismiss the idea. That's understandable, because many therapies have little-to-no scientific research to prove their claims. Unfortunately, acupuncture sometimes gets painted with the same brushstroke as the infomercial panaceas.

Make no mistake about it, acupuncture is not a fad.? it's been used for centuries in the Orient to treat many medical conditions, and today acupuncture is the cornerstone of health care for approximately a quarter of the world?s population.

We do understand the skeptics, the ones who find it hard to ?drink the Kool-Aid.? That's because, despite a solid understanding of some of acupuncture?s modes of action, undocumented medicinal effects of the therapy remain.? And, when this is combined with the fact that success can vary from patient to patient, many people will dismiss it as a therapy. But maybe people should give it a chance before writing it off.

PINPOINTING HOW ACUPUNCTURE WORKS. As you may know, acupuncture is an ancient Eastern medical procedure in which small needles are inserted into specific points on the body to elicit both a local and a systemic response from the patient.? The points that an acupuncturist chooses coincide with locations on the body in which peripheral nerves run close to the skin surface.? Often, these locations correspond to gaps between muscles or along channels where blood vessels run.

Termed ?meridians,? these tracks on the body provide dozens of opportunities (over 250 acupoints are mapped in the horse) for veterinarians to manage a medical condition. Therefore, a solid understanding of equine neuroanatomy is critical to the success of acupuncture because needles must be placed very near nerves in order to elicit a response.

Why are nerves so important'? The nervous system is the ?puppet master? for the entire body.? It controls everything from sensation to movement and without innervation to tissues, the body can't function.?

When an acupuncture needle is strategically placed near a nerve, the physical presence of the needle for a prolonged period of time (usually between five and 30 minutes) causes the sheath around the nerve to release several chemicals.

These chemicals have a local effect, but also function as neurotransmitters that send a message to the spinal cord and finally up to the brain to ultimately create a systemic response.? The chemicals that get released include endorphins, dynorphins and enkephalins, all of which are classified as opioids.

Opioids serve to relax the body, relieve stress, and lessen the effects of pain. They can also help to stop inflammation.? Yes. Acupuncture can have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body.

Think of it this way: When the body gets hurt, the injury involves damage to tissues. The tissues react by releasing chemical mediators that signal the brain to create an inflammatory response in the injured area, which is characterized by heat, pain, swelling/ edema and redness.? In order for the body to elicit this inflammatory reaction, it must first sense that there is a problem.? If one uses acupuncture to dull the sensation or pain (by sending signals to the brain using opioids), the brain won?t order such an intense inflammatory response.

And, since inflammation itself is a destructive process, it makes sense to limit inflammation as much as possible during an injury.

Traditionally, Western medicine uses ice, rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as bute, to stop inflammation.? Acupuncture is simply a drug-free way to do the same thing. Of course, we're not advocating that acupuncture be used in place of proven Western-based therapies in all instances, but it may work well when used in conjuction. Think of it as a complementary therapy rather than an alternative one.

THREE-TIERED EFFECT. Acupuncture exerts its effects at three places in the body:

  1. ?At the location where the needle is inserted,
  2. ?At the level of the spinal cord where the peripheral nerve connects with the central nervous system, and
  3. ?At the master control center in the brain.

At the local level, acupuncture can have a numbing effect by causing the body to release opioids.? Any location that is painful or inflamed can potentially be calmed with acupuncture needles.

At the level of the spinal cord, acupuncture can cause the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that can numb pain as well.

At the level of the brain, acupuncture can potentiate the release of endorphins and norepinephrine, both of which relieve pain.

Therefore, acupuncture performed anywhere on the body can potentially relieve pain, even if the needles aren?t necessarily inserted at the source of the pain.

NOT A ?LAST DITCH? EFFORT. Until recently, acupuncture was considered an option when all other medical modalities had failed?the one you tried when the vet had tried every ?trick in the truck? without success. But not anymore:

In chronic painful conditions:? Conditions such as gastric ulcers, colitis, laminitis, back pain, arthritis, tying-up and moon blindness all are difficult to manage long-term.? They involve expensive medications, time-consuming treatments, and often result in side effects as a result of prolonged NSAID use.

Any chronic, painful condition can potentially be helped with acupuncture. Many horse owners report that incorporating its use into the management of various ailments results in a noticeable improvement in the horse and a significant reduction in the amount of medications needed.

As a preventative measure:? Horses that suffer from ongoing inflammatory conditions often can't be treated adequately with conventional medications.

Take, for instance, an allergic reaction in which a horse is prone to hives. If a horse is being exposed on an ongoing basis to an allergen such as an insect, dust or pollen, no amount of medication will fully resolve the allergic response in some cases. Since acupuncture can signal the brain to calm down and relax, it can potentially also help the body to stop over-reacting to the allergen and thus prevent allergic responses.

As a performance enhancer:? Those who train for competition constantly battle inflammation in their horses. The rigors of training often result in lameness from stiff muscles or joints. But competitors can't give any ?performance-enhancing drugs? prior to a competition, even when used as legitimate medications. Acupuncture has no drug residue because it uses the body?s own chemicals to cause an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effect.? Therefore, some competitors rely on it during the show season.

For fertility:? it's helped women conceive, and it can have a positive effect on fertility in horses, too.? For those who are trying to breed a middle-aged maiden mare, acupuncture may enable her to successfully conceive.? (Note: Acupuncture is not advised in pregnant animals. It is only recommended to aid in conception.)

As an appetite stimulant and anti-depressant:? Acupuncture has been proven to alter serotonin levels in the brain.? For a horse that is depressed (such as a horse that has lost his companion) or not eating due to illness, it may be able to help. Studies have shown that acupuncture stimulates appetite and creates serenity/calmness in patients.

Some types of acupuncture work better in certain horses than in others. (See acupuncture sidebars.)? These modalities must be chosen by the acupuncturist according to how the horse responds to therapy.? For instance, some horses that receive electroacupuncture become profoundly relaxed and even fatigued. Therefore, an acupuncturist may have to make changes from session to session until the type of acupuncture that works best for that horse is determined.

PATIENCE AND TIME. We're used to taking a pill, seeing quick results and then dealing with side effects of the pill later.? With acupuncture, none of these rules apply, because it's helping the body to help itself.

If you're trying acupuncture for the first time, it's imperative that you give an acupuncturist at least three or four weekly sessions with your horse before you decide whether or not it's working.? Remember, the acupuncturist needs time to figure out which points and what style of acupuncture work best for your horse.

In addition, the body needs time to respond to the physiologic changes brought about by the therapy.? Think of it this way: If your horse has had gastric ulcers for years, it may take several months to get them under control.? it's unreasonable to expect that all will be cured with just one acupuncture session.

BOTTOM LINE. If you ask your veterinarian if acupuncture can treat this problem or that, the correct answer will always be, ?It may be able to help.?? But, the same thing can be said about conventional Western medications.

As we move forward into the next generation of ?horse-centered? husbandry, acupuncture will become commonplace as more horse owners experience positive results.? Your choice to try acupuncture should be decided with your veterinarian?s input and further research to determine if it is the right therapy for your horse. Remember, any location that is painful or inflamed can potentially be calmed with acupuncture needles, when placed by an experienced practitioner. Article by Horse Journal Contributing Veterinary Editor Grant Miller, DVM, a certified veterinary acupuncturist.