Equine Acupuncture

Written By: Lauren Alderman DVM, CVA, CVSMT

Written By: Lauren Alderman DVM, CVA, CVSMT

What is veterinary acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient practice that has been used in human and animal medicine for at least 2,000 years. It is a component of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), which also includes herbal medicine, food therapy, exercise, and Tui-na (a type of massage). Acupuncture can be defined as the use of thin, flexible, sterile needles inserted at specific points to help stimulate the body to heal itself. Acupuncture points have been found to contain a high density of free nerve endings, arterioles, lymphatic vessels, and mast cells.

What cases respond well to acupuncture?

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In general, equine patients typically respond very well to acupuncture for a variety of conditions. Equine conditions that respond especially well to acupuncture include musculoskeletal pain, and neurologic conditions. Conditions that may take more time to respond include internal medicine conditions such as gastrointestinal problems, reproductive disorders, or dermatologic conditions. Acupuncture is also a valuable tool for horses that can be described as “we’ve tried everything else.”

Companion animal patients also respond well to acupuncture for a number of conditions, such as musculoskeletal issues and gastrointestinal problems. Conditions that may take longer to respond include respiratory and dermatologic disorders. Again, sometimes acupuncture can be immensely beneficial for small animal patients that have not responded well to more conventional therapies.

What can I expect during an acupuncture appointment?

History: Similar to any other veterinary appointment, your veterinarian will want to obtain a detailed history prior to beginning treatment. A TCVM history will also determine your animal’s constitution, which could be Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, or Wood. A patient’s constitution can help indicate how that patient might respond to acupuncture treatment, as well as what health conditions they may be predisposed to.

Physical exam: The TCVM exam includes looking at a patient’s tongue color, feeling their pulse, and palpation along acupuncture meridians.

Diagnosis: A TCVM diagnosis is very specific and individualized. For example, two horses with loose manure may have completely different TCVM diagnoses. The TCVM diagnosis (for example, Spleen Qi deficiency) will determine what acupuncture points will be used during treatment.

Treatment: Dry needling is the basis of acupuncture treatment, and involves the insertion of thin, sterile, flexible needles into specific acupuncture points. Aqua acupuncture refers to injecting a liquid, such as sterile saline or dilute vitamin B12 under the skin at specific acupuncture points. This causes more prolonged stimulation at that point. Similarly, hemo acupuncture refers to injecting the patient’s own blood into specific acupuncture points. Electro acupuncture involves running a gentle current between acupuncture points, and is especially beneficial for painful musculoskeletal conditions and neurologic disorders. Pneumo acupuncture is the injection of subcutaneous air, which is sometimes used to address cases of localized muscle atrophy. Moxa, an herb that burns at a high temperature, is sometimes incorporated into acupuncture treatments. This involves holding the burning moxa near an acupuncture point to warm the skin at that location. For very sensitive patients that do not enjoy acupuncture needles, laser acupuncture is another option that may be better tolerated. Tui-na, a TCVM massage technique, may also be incorporated into an acupuncture treatment. This is also an excellent option for sensitive patients that do not appreciate acupuncture needles.

Patient response: Most people describe acupuncture needles as causing a “heavy” or “tingling” sensation. Most animals tolerate dry needling very well, and many even relax and fall asleep during treatment. Sedation can be used if needed for very sensitive patients, but will likely decrease the efficacy of acupuncture treatment. This may mean the need for more treatments before results are seen.

Food/herbal medicine/management recommendations: Because acupuncture is only one branch of TCVM, your veterinarian may also make individualized recommendations for other TCVM therapies.

Do all patients respond to acupuncture?

Response to acupuncture treatments is very individual. The majority of equine patients seem to respond quickly to acupuncture, even with only one treatment. Companion animals more often require more than one session to see results. As a rule, many practitioners advise that about 30% of patients respond after their first treatment, 60% after their second treatment, and 90% after their third treatment. If no response is seen after three acupuncture treatments, an animal may be part of the approximately 10% of patients that do not respond.