Researching Complementary Therapies

Complementary medicine is based primarily on preventing the disease, disorder, or other ailment before it happens, with less emphasis treating it after. This is a bit of a contrast to what Westerners think of as traditional medicine. Just think: Why did you visit your doctor the last time you went; was it preventive, or because of illness?

Kevin Haussler, DC, PhD, assistant professor at Colorado State University, explained to a group of veterinarians at the AAEP Focus meeting in Ft .Collins, Colo., on July 31, that the effectiveness of complementary medicine has been debated for years, and little research has been done to support it--a record he feels needs to be rectified.

"It is a different perspective in medicine," he explained. "It also gives us challenges for research because if we have a room full of healthy horses (that we are treating), how do we objectively determine if we have an effect (using these types of treatments)?"

Haussler practices complementary medicine, but he is far from naïve as to its effectiveness. He said just because it was reported to work 2,000 years ago doesn't mean it is valid and working today. He said there is a great need to understand this form of medicine and to study its best practices.

"Hopefully we are not doing imaging and surgery 2,000 years from now the same way we are doing it today," he said. "We should be able to progress from that. My goal is to investigate some clinical research and experimental research and really figure out what works, how it works, so we can really do it better."

Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation

Haussler said veterinarians and horse owners need to overhaul their concepts of equine physical therapy. "The basis for rehabilitation today is when the horse no longer shows any pain or lameness, we stop," explained Haussler. "I think that gives us a lot of room for improvement."

He said proponents of physical therapy warned, "Performing orthopedic surgery or discharging a horse in a splint without prescribing proper rehabilitative care (like in our human counterparts) is an outdated approach."

However, Haussler said, there's very little literature out there to support physical therapy. "It's kind of a good news, bad news thing," he said. "The good news is, if we can do one or two studies, we've made improvements or even some changes in the profession. The bad news is we don't really have a good foundation to stand on as to how physical modalities may work other than that in the human realm."

He explained that veterinarians and owners need to evaluate the horse's behavioral changes, flexibility of the joint, soft tissue, and strength of that area as a part of the rehabilitation process.


Haussler said there are few studies addressing the effectiveness of acupuncture, and of those studies, many lack significant scientific data. Of the two commonly cited studies, he dismissed because it lacked a control group; while he said another study only showed that electroacupuncture (acupuncture that uses electrical stimulants delivered via needles) was effective. He spoke briefly on the research from the University of Florida headed by Huisheng Xie, DVM, PhD, MS, which showed evidence of electroacupuncture's effectiveness in the sense of analgesia (more information on that study at


Studies supporting the use of chiropractic are more readily available, explained Haussler. He discussed one study that showed chiropractic adjustment could help make the horse move more symmetically while moving on the treadmill, as well as reduce pain and increase flexibility.

A Challenge

"My challenge to the veterinary community is to move away from only evaluating pain and lameness, and let's get into some of the other things that affect the musculoskeletal system (such as range of motion, tendon tensibility, and the psychology of horses)," Haussler said.

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for .

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