Regular visits from the veterinarian are essential to give our horses the best chances at a healthy and vibrant life. But have you ever considered using acupuncture as a complementary treatment along with traditional western veterinary medicine?
Falling under the umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in veterinary medicine (along with herbal therapy), the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) defines acupuncture as a complementary medicine that has the potential to treat or prevent illness or alleviate pain in horses. “Fundamentally, at its most basic level, acupuncture is the insertion of tiny needles in specific points along the body to stimulate healing or immune response,” says Meghan Waller, BSc, DVM, CVA, COAC, CCHM, of McKee-Pownall Equine Services in Campbellville, ON, adding that there are various types of acupuncture treatments.
Understanding how acupuncture works is essential to grasping how it can benefit a horse. By inserting stainless steel needles into a horse’s skin at predetermined acupuncture points (acupoints), the process can be used to treat an existing medical condition or as part of a wellness exam to determine if a medical condition may present in the future. Acupuncture helps stimulate the body’s immune, endocrine, and nervous systems. By stimulating the acupoint, the horse’s body responds, triggering a local inflammation reaction, which in turn prompts an immune response and greater blood flow along with relaxation of the surrounding tissue and muscle.
Types of Acupuncture
“Dry needling basically involves putting a thin metal needle into the skin at varying depths at specific locations,” says Kirsten Anderson, DVM, a graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College who provides chiropractic and acupuncture services for horses through her mobile clinic, Mapleton Mobile Veterinary Services. This method consists of using needles differing in length and diameter, depending on where they are placed within the horse. For areas such as the ears, feet, head, and distal limbs, typically needles as short as 1.27cm (.5”) and as narrow as 0.25mm (.009″) are used. For parts of the back, neck, and proximal limbs, needles as long as 15.24cm (6”) and 0.75mm (.029″) in diameter are used.
Waller explains that aquapuncture involves “inserting small needles that are hollow and injecting some sort of fluid into the acupoints. Homeopathic medications, vitamin preparations, even physiologic saline help stimulate that point by just injecting a small amount of fluid.”
As with regular acupuncture, the procedure begins with the insertion of a needle into the acupoint, but differs in that a small amount of liquid is injected into the treatment location, such as vitamin B-12 or a medication. This helps to further treat the area beyond simple physical tissue stimulation.
Electroacupuncture or Electrostimulation
“Electroacupuncture is the insertion of metal Chinese needles, and then applying an electric current through the needles,” Waller says. This approach consists of hooking electrodes to the acupuncture needles, then sending an electric current at different strengths and various durations to treat an acupuncture point. It is primarily used by veterinarians for equine nerve issues, including radial nerve damage and facial nerve paralysis, as well as for muscle tension, to alleviate back soreness in performance horses.
This acupuncture approach uses heat in conjunction with traditional Chinese needles to treat acupuncture points. Depending on the approach (indirect or direct) Artemisia vulgaris, an herb more commonly known as “mugwort,” is rolled in a cigar-like fashion, ignited, and either placed directly on or very close to the needle (about 1.3-2.5cm, or 0.5-1”), permitting the heat to transfer to the point. This approach is commonly used in cases of recurring pain, to promote wound healing, for equine reproduction issues, and for musculoskeletal conditions or arthritis. Waller explains that moxibustion is used “less commonly in horses,” pointing out that “There are generally not a lot of horses that tolerate it.”
Cold Laser and Infra-red Stimulator
Anderson and Waller both recommended using lasers to trigger acupoints if needles are not an option for a horse. The AAEP suggests that cold laser and infra-red (IR) stimulator technology are effective when traditional acupuncture needles are not (such as in sensitive or hard-to-reach places), but cautions against the potential for damage to the eyes if used improperly.
Some less commonly-used treatments include hemoacupuncture, a procedure where a hypodermic needle is inserted into a blood vessel at an acupoint to draw a few drops of blood, purportedly to release heat from the body, especially in the coronary band, head, legs, tail, and to treat laminitis. Tui Na combines massage and acupressure and involves applying direct pressure to acupoints with hands and fingers for several minutes to relieve muscle tightness. And with pneumo-acupuncture, sterilized air is injected into an acupoint, creating an air bubble within the subcutaneous tissues which in turn stimulates the acupoint region – especially useful for muscle atrophy.
Acupuncture’s Place in Veterinary Care
It should be repeated that acupuncture is a complementary form of treatment, not a primary course of veterinary care. Waller explains, “As a vet certified in acupuncture, I always do my ‘western’ diagnosis first and foremost, then discuss my treatment options for the horse. In cases of true emergency situations, say a severe colic or lacerations, we always create a western diagnosis and treatment plan first.”
There are ample cases where acupuncture can play an effective role, however. “A horse with roaring (laryngeal hemiplegia) is a case I would treat with electroacupuncture,” Anderson says. “Roaring, seen more commonly in racehorses, is a nerve dysfunction of the left recurrent laryngeal nerve resulting in partial or complete paralysis of the arytenoid cartilage, which is part of the larynx. When the horse breathes in, the arytenoid cartilage obstructs the airway, restricting air flow to the lungs and resulting in poor performance and a roaring sound. Electroacupuncture provides a stronger stimulation to the nerve than using just acupuncture needles on their own, and can improve the roaring and subsequently the horse’s performance.”
According to the AAEP, other situations in which acupuncture can help – following a complete western medical exam of radiographs – include easing neck pain and improving nerve function, especially related to traumatic injury. Similarly, electroacupuncture is a helpful treatment for cases of facial nerve paralysis that don’t gradually and naturally improve on their own. Using acupuncture can also be used in conjunction with western medicine as a preventive and diagnostic tool to identify early illness.
“For overall wellness, it’s valuable that we’ll often find tight, sore acupoints that are of diagnostic value,” says Waller. “Often, horses will start showing strains in their muscle patterns before an actual lameness presents itself. So I’ll find sore or tight acupoints that are indicative of front feet lameness, or of a hind end lameness, based on my acupuncture exam. I can say, if it gets worse or if you’re starting to notice something under saddle, we can then go back to a traditional western perspective and evaluate the horse with a lameness exam.”
Choosing an Acupuncturist
When looking for a veterinary acupuncturist, there are a few things to keep in mind. A professional should be comfortable and willing to discuss their rationale for acupuncture, providing an overview of how it works and taking into account your horse’s tolerance level.
Waller says, “Acupuncture is still needles and there are minimal risks; it’s still an invasive procedure.” It’s a good idea to evaluate the veterinarian’s “soft skills” before committing to any acupuncture treatments. “If they can’t explain the scientific basis behind why they’re doing it or why they’re choosing the points they are, or why that treatment is being pursued,” then perhaps you should keep looking. “It is the best way to be comfortable and make sure the horse is comfortable with the person.”
Another way to evaluate a veterinary acupuncturist is to see how committed they are to the practice. There are many institutes of higher education for certification, including the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, which lists Canadian IVAS-certified vets on their website (ivas.org). Requiring an initial coursework of 210 hours of in-classroom instruction and hands-on application, once veterinarians are certified they are required to complete ten continuing education hours every 24 months to maintain their certification.
“Your acupuncturist may or may not be your regular equine veterinarian,” says Gillian Dobson, DVM, CVA, CIVCA, a Manitoba-based equine veterinarian, acupuncturist, and chiropractor. “It is important to discuss your plans to pursue acupuncture care with your regular vet if they do not offer it. They may have recommendations of acupuncturists in the area. It is important that your acupuncturist is also willing to work with your regular veterinarian.
“Chinese medicine works very well alongside traditional veterinary care; veterinarians and acupuncturists complement each other’s specialties and are able to look at the horse from different perspectives. By providing this team approach in their health care, your horse can flourish.”
“Fundamentally, at its most basic level, acupuncture is the insertion of tiny needles in specific points along the body to stimulate healing or immune response.”