Diagnosing health problems in equine athletes can be problematic. Is lower back pain in your horse due to sore hocks or is it kidney inflammation? Will your horse not pick up the correct lead due to stubbornness or a trigger point in its shoulder? Does your mare with moody behavior have to go on drugs or can her hormones be managed more naturally?
These are all questions that a veterinary acupuncturist can help you answer. The use of acupuncture offers an additional approach to diagnostic and therapeutic dilemmas that may be used in addition to conventional Western medicine techniques. It also plays a valuable role as a preventative treatment.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture as a health care treatment began over 3,000 years ago in China, and is recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) as a “valid modality” for treating horses. The treatment consists of inserting solid, fine, sterile, stainless steel needles into specific points of the body to prevent and treat disease.
The procedure must be administered by a licensed veterinarian as it is considered surgery by the above associations and requires a thorough knowledge of veterinary anatomy and physiology.
How does acupuncture work?
Needles are placed into specific locations within the meridians of the body. The points are chosen after palpation reveals increased or decreased reflexes and differences in tissue quality.
Acupuncture needles stimulate tiny nerve endings that carry impulses to the spinal cord and brain. This results in responses within the nervous and endocrine systems, leading to the release of natural painkillers such as endorphins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. These influence the function of the body tissues and organ systems.
Acupuncture also recognizes syndromes, so if a group of body points are sore upon palpation, a predictable anatomical area is involved and will be treated. With certain health issues, such as laminitis or EPM, a particular group of points will be addressed to reopen ‘blocked’ energy flow to reestablish normal function of that area.
Beneficial Effects of Acupuncture
- Pain relief
- Reduction of inflammation
- Improved circulation
- Hormone regulation
- Decreased gastrointestinal irregularities
Because acupuncture balances the body’s own system of healing, complications rarely, if ever, develop. It provides a means by which the body can heal itself.
When should I consider using acupuncture?
Acupuncture Treatments are used to help:
- Musculoskeletal pain – body soreness, back pain, inflammation, tendon/ligament issues, laminitis, navicular, arthritis, trigger points
- Endocrine disorders – Cushings, Insulin Resistance, Hypothyroidism, moody mares
- Neurologic syndromes – EPM, West Nile, EHV-1, vaccinosis, nerve paralysis
- Gastrointestinal concerns – ulcers, diarrhea, non-surgical colic
- Skin problems
- Reproductive conditions
- Respiratory issues – Rhino, allergies, heaves
- Compromised immune system
- Anxiety and/or nervousness
Studies have been published that show the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment modality. Research done by Dr. Xie at the University of Florida on horses with lameness due to acute injury improved by 96 percent with the use of acupuncture—over 50 percent of the horses became sound. In a different study, researchers Kilde and Martin looked at competitive horses that had chronic back pain that prevented them from working. Over 85 percent of those horses achieved enough relief to resume work.
Horses affected by laminitis have had tremendous relief thanks to acupuncture. Dry needles are inserted near the coronet band to reduce inflammation and increase circulation. Other points will also be treated to help with pain relief, liver function and energy flow. Research studies by Kilde and Kung demonstrate that up to 90 percent of both acute and chronic laminitis cases treated with acupuncture showed improvement.
Performance horses are prone to developing minor injuries that often go unnoticed. Eventually these build up and cause the horse to compensate by altering its way of moving and this makes it susceptible to more serious injury. By restoring normal blood supply and function to the muscles, they heal quickly and competition schedules are uninterrupted.
An extremely helpful approach for hard working horses is the use of aquapuncture to help relieve trigger points (muscle knots). These develop when a muscle is overworked and cannot flush all of the lactic acid build up out of the area. Trigger points are painful and often result in decreased performance, even lameness.
Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are another issue horses under stress from training, competing and hauling face on a regular basis. By palpating specific acupuncture points, you can determine if your horse has ulcers. Acupuncture treatments can help regulate GI motility and decrease pain caused by inflammation.
As a preventative medical procedure, acupuncture works well when combined with chiropractic manipulation performed by a well-trained veterinarian or chiropractor. Providing relief to trigger points as well as catching other health issues before they become too serious can help keep your horse running as its best.
What should I expect during a treatment?
The veterinarian will ask for a history of the horse. This is followed by a physical examination, where the acupuncture meridians will be evaluated for sensitivity or blockages. Palpating meridians and points will locate problem areas without having to ride the horse or perform a lameness evaluation. Based on the findings, the best treatment modality will be applied to relieve the condition.
There are several ways to stimulate acupuncture points including:
- Dry needles
- Cold laser
When performed properly, horses relax during all of these procedures. Licking, chewing, yawning and napping are all signs of pain relief and endorphin release. The number and frequency of treatments will depend on what the disorder is and whether it is an acute or chronic issue.
Let’s walk through each of the acupuncture approaches and when is a good time to bring them in as part of your treatment protocol.
Very thin, solid needles are inserted into strategic acupuncture points for treatment. Points that have not palpated as painful and have reduced energy need to be tonified. These needles will be left untouched for a short period of time, usually 5 to 10 minutes.
Points that are sensitive and have excess energy need to be sedated. Those needles will be left in place for a longer period of time, up to 30 minutes. They are often manipulated multiple times during treatment to increase stimulatory effect.
Dry Needle therapy is often used with cases of laminitis, navicular, arthritis, tendon or ligament issues, facial nerve paralysis, eye injuries, skin irritation, GI issues and inflammation. This therapy is often combined with the other modalities listed next.
A hypodermic needle is used to inject a liquid, most commonly Vitamin B12, into the acupuncture point. Vitamin B12 is very beneficial in the treatment of trigger points in performance horses. The injection will immediately help relieve pain, as well as encourage the body to flush lactic acid out of the area. The most common areas of the body treated with this method are the pectorals, shoulders, backs and hips.
Treatment time depends on the amount of points to be injected, but typically does not take longer than 5 to 10 minutes.
Aquapuncture therapy is most often used to treat trigger points, body soreness, back pain, Rhino, immune compromise, decreased appetite and lack of energy.
A hypodermic needle is used to inject chosen acupuncture points with the patient’s own blood. The first step is to draw blood from the jugular vein, followed by injecting the blood into other parts of the body for treatment. This method is used whenever immune stimulation is necessary.
Again, treatment time depends on the amount of places to be injected, but typically does not take longer than 5 to 10 minutes.
Hemo-acupuncture therapy is used for treatment of neurologic syndromes (EPM, EHV-1, West Nile), lyme disease, vaccinosis and weakened immune system.
A long, dry needle with a metal handle is inserted into the point to be treated. Then a small bundle of herb is placed on the handle portion of the needle. That herb is then lit on fire in order to heat the needle, creating a greater healing effect. Heat is used when trying to achieve yin/yang balance in the body.
The needles are left in place until the herb has burned and disintegrated, leaving the needle cool enough to the touch to remove. This takes about 20 minutes.
Moxibustion therapy is commonly used for hormone imbalances (reproductive issues), endocrine disorders (Cushings, Insulin Resistance), calming, sore backs and sacroiliac pain.
A long, dry needle is inserted and then a small alligator clip with an insulated wire is attached just below the handle portion of the needle. The wires lead back to a device that delivers mild electrical pulses through the needles in order to create muscle contraction and nerve stimulation. Treatment takes approximately 30 to 60 minutes.
This approach is used when treating sore backs, arthritis of the spine, inflammation, body soreness and muscle atrophy due to injury or neurologic disorders.
A visible red or infrared LED laser is used when a horse is uncomfortable with needle insertion or has an allergic reaction to needles coated with silicone. A painless beam of light is held over each acupuncture point being treated for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
Response to any of the acupuncture therapies will be exhibited by the horse in one of four ways:
- The horse gets better and no further treatment is required.
- The horse gets better, but only for a short period of time. This usually indicates there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. Another acupuncture treatment is required.
- The horse shows no improvement, which demonstrates that the primary problem has not been resolved and needs to be evaluated with a different therapeutic approach.
- The condition worsens for a short period, and then improves. This is termed a ‘healing crisis’ as the body becomes overwhelmed by the amount of toxins being released from the tissues before balance can be restored.
How do I find an acupuncturist?
By law acupuncture can only be performed by a qualified veterinarian who has undergone special training in the technique. Many veterinarians are seeking training in acupuncture to use as part of their standard diagnostic and treatment services. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) and the Chi Institute both offer training in veterinary acupuncture.
In addition, many veterinary schools including the University of California at Davis, Colorado State University, University of Tennessee and University of Florida (to name a few) are including acupuncture in their clinical services and veterinary curriculum.
You can find a certified veterinary acupuncturist by going on the IVAS website (ivas.org) and using the Vet Search feature on their home page. Another option is to ask local horse care professionals if they know of a veterinarian who has practical experience, but may not be IVAS certified.
Acupuncture has become a standard treatment protocol for top equine athletes around the world—both to stay in the best possible condition, as well as to prevent and treat minor injuries. In fact, riders at the Olympics and World Equestrian Games use acupuncture to help their horses perform their best during competition while under extremely strict prohibited substance policies. Integrating this centuries old medical practice with traditional Western medicine will help keep your equine athlete at its absolute peak.
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