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Equine Acupuncture: Is It For Your Horse?

What is equine acupuncture, how does it work, when should you consider it, and where can you find a certified veterinary acupuncturist?

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), living organisms are a road map of energy conduits, called meridians or channels. These carry life-giving energy to and from every body system. Any interference or interruption in that energy flow can disrupt normal function, leading to disease.

Acupuncture in the treatment of disease involves the stimulation of specific points along affected channels to reopen "blocked" energy flow and reestablish normal functioning. Diagnostic acupuncture uses these same meridians to detect an energy blockage. Precision in selecting the proper points, inserting needles (if used) to the proper depth, and maintaining treatment for the proper length of time, all are critical for successful acupuncture.

There are several types of acupuncture commonly used in equine medicine:

  1. Simple needling (AP): The insertion of fine, solid, metal needles, leaving them in place while occasionally twirling them, for a total of about 20 to 30 minutes. Just as some horses are needle-shy when it's time for their annual flu shot, being "needled" for acupuncture may not be their favorite thing (particularly if their treatment requires the placement of several needles in sensitive spots). Still, most are quite tolerant of AP.
  2. Electroacupuncture (EAP): After insertion, acupuncture needles are connected to an electrical stimulator which delivers electrical impulses to the points for 20 to 30 minutes. Surprisingly, most horses tolerate EAP quite well, but there are some that won't accept it.
  3. Moxibustion (moxa): A smoldering, punklike "cigar" of rolled herb is held above the acupuncture point until the heat becomes uncomfortable; the heat is withdrawn for a few seconds and reapplied. This cycle is repeated 15 to 20 times for each point. Alternatively, the moxa is used to heat an inserted acupuncture needle.
  4. Laser stimulation: A painless beam of laser light is used to stimulate acupuncture points. Reports indicate that the more powerful the laser, the more effective the treatment (approaching the effectiveness of simple AP).
  5. Point injection: A liquid (vitamin Bu is commonly used) is injected into the acupuncture point, for prolonged stimulation that lasts as much as an hour after injection.
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When To Consider Acupuncture
Use these rules of thumb:

  1. Seek conventional treatment first. Where appropriate, augment it with acupuncture, or;
  2. Try acupuncture after conventional treatment has produced less-than-satisfying results.
  3. If your horse has a condition for which every passing minute means more tissue damage and a worsening prognosis (such as laminitis, severe colic, bowed tendon, or navicular disease), seek proven conventional care as his primary treatment. You can then use acupuncture to augment that protocol.

Following is a sampling of conditions for which acupuncture has been reported to be beneficial, on its own or as an adjunct to contemporary medicine:

  • Peripheral nerve paralysis
  • Navicular disease
  • Laminitis
  • A variety of musculoskeletal-related lamenesses
  • Hives, shock
  • Cribbing Stomach ulcers Nervousness

Finding An Acupuncturist
To find a certified veterinary acupuncturist near you, contact the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS). Contact information follows. It'll provide you with the closest IVAS-certified veterinarian in your area.

Note: you may actually find, via word of mouth, a non-IVAS-certified vet who's had more hands-on equine acupuncture experience than some IVAS acupuncturists. A veterinarian can become certified by IVAS after 4 weekends of class work and a 3-month internship. Relatively speaking, this isn't much training. Legally, IVAS certification isn't required for a veterinarian to perform acupuncture on your horse. However, anyone who treats your horse with acupuncture must be a licensed veterinarian.

Once you locate an acupuncturist, ask him or her for references. If possible, find an acupuncturist--certified or not--who's recommended by other equine veterinarians.

The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society: P.O. Box 1478, Longmont, CO 80502-1478; 303-682-1168; www.ivas.org.

Karen Hayes is an Idaho-based equine practitioner.

This article first appeared in the February 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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