Veterinarians trained in acupuncture have an additional tool to treat patients. But like any tool it has its best uses and well as times when another might be preferred. After all, both sledge- and finish hammers can drive a nail, but your drywall looks a lot better if you choose the latter to hang a picture.
A good start to understanding acupuncture’s usefulness is to examine how it works. Chinese theory states that the energies of the body circulate through channels called meridians. Two energies necessary for life are qi and blood. Qi (pronounced “chee”) is the energy of action in the body, responsible for movement and warmth. Blood, in the Chinese system, is not just the fluid circulating in the vessels, but also the energy of cooling, nourishing, and moistening. In order for the body to function correctly, there must be a balance of qi and blood filling the meridians and their movement must be unimpeded.
Acupuncture points are locations on the body where energy flows close to the surface. Needles inserted here manipulate energy: directing it where it needs to go, improving the flow, and so on. Scientific investigation shows that stimulation of these points often results in the production of chemicals that help with pain reduction, blood flow, and nerve function. Though acupuncture can, and does, treat any condition, its ability to manipulate and direct qi and blood allows it to shine in the treatment of musculoskeletal disease and pain in particular, which is why it is used in these situations more than any other.
There is a saying in Chinese medicine that states: “if the channels are free there is no pain; if the channels are obstructed there is pain.” This statement applies to all pain: muscle, joint, nerve, and organ. In order to treat patients effectively, practitioners further define the type of pain by the energy blocked and the underlying cause of the obstruction. A deep, dull ache is considered stagnation of qi, while sharp, stabbing pain is considered stagnation of blood, presenting as cramps and what we would call “trigger points”.
There are many causes of obstruction. Trauma is said to sever the meridians, allowing qi and blood to pool in the location of the injury. Pathogens, or “evil qi” penetrate the body and are labeled according to clinical signs. Invasions of Cold into the body cause a stabbing pain, while Heat causes a
warm sensation, and Damp causes swelling. This may sound odd to westerners, but horse people already refer to a horse with an extremely painful back as “cold-backed”, and many of us have examined an injured joint and found it to be “hot” and “filled” with fluid, so these descriptive terms shouldn’t seem so foreign.
Once the cause and type of obstruction is determined, specific points and techniques are chosen to eliminate obstruction and clear pain. Needles are placed in points to improve the flow or qi and/or blood, along meridians where pain is located, and in special points to clear Heat, Cold, and Damp from the body. For example, a point called “Small Intestine 3” (Houxi) is on the lower front leg on a meridian that runs up the leg and neck and is very effective for relaxing muscle spasm and treating neck issues. Points painful to palpation are needled because these a-shi, or trigger, points are where obstruction is concentrated. Special techniques, like moxa, which involves burning an herb on the handle of the needle to add heat, can enhance treatment and is especially useful to counteract Cold-type pain.
We have answered the question of the type of tool acupuncture is, but still haven’t discussed when it is the superior tool. Here are a few guidelines in regard to pain:
Back Pain. Anyone who has endured severe back pain knows how ineffective most modern medications are. Acupuncture often offers a higher level of relief for these conditions.
Unidentified lameness. Some animals come up lame and nerve blocks, MRI, and bone scan fail to turn up anything. Since acupuncture theory states that obstruction causes pain, working to clear all obstruction from the painful area is an effective way to resolve these mystery conditions.
Competitive requirements. Some horses have chronic problems managed with medications that are illegal during competition. Acupuncture is a great option for pain management during a show.
Owner preference. Some people have personal issues with using medication for long periods of time and prefer a non-pharmaceutical option.
Performance. Subtle aches and pains can crop up over the course of training and showing that aren’t quite enough for bute or Rimadyl, but still alter movement and behavior. This is an excellent situation where acupuncture can be used to keep an animal performing its best.
Emergencies. In an emergency situation, such as a colic or acute injury, acupuncture needles are best left in the truck and hypodermics used to give faster acting and more powerful western drugs. However, once the emergency has passed, acupuncture can be integrated into treatment. For instance, patients that still have significant pain after surgery and are already being given the highest safe doses of western drugs can be treated with acupuncture for that extra measure of pain relief.
Acupuncture has been used for centuries in the successful treatment of many different conditions and is a valuable tool for veterinarians and owners. Knowing how it works and when it is best used can help owners make the decision as to whether or not your animal would benefit from this ancient art.