Acupuncture and Pain Relief for Horses

The Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center presented "Acupuncture and Pain Relief for Horses" during its second Tuesday Talk session of the season. The seminar, which was held in Leesburg, Va., on Jan. 16, featured Alison A. Smith, DVM, who is a clinical assistant professor in anesthesia at the center. The meeting was attended by a record number of 120 veterinarians, horse owners and horse professionals.

Smith, a board certified veterinary anesthesiologist who completed the IVAS Basic Course from October 2005 to March 2006, discussed the theories behind how acupuncture works, why it is effective for pain relief, and which injuries and conditions can benefit from the treatment.

Although the number of veterinarians offering acupuncture is growing, it is still relatively rare. According to Dr. Ed Boldt, Jr., executive director of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), only 920 veterinarians from around the globe are currently certified in veterinary acupuncture through IVAS, approximately 200 of whom are performing equine acupuncture exclusively.

Highlights from the presentation are included below:

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture, an ancient technique that originated from traditional Chinese medicine, is the practice of putting needles in specific points on the body in order to treat disease or relieve pain. It is based on the principles of Yin and Yang and strives to restore balance and harmony to the animal. From a position of harmony and balance, the body is better able to deal with insults and stresses, and can return itself to normal.

The theories behind acupuncture were developed thousands of years before modern science identified the function of internal organs as they are currently understood. Therefore, a disconnection exists between the modern understanding of organ function and disease pathology, and the traditional Chinese medicine view. For example, unlike in Western medicine in which consciousness resides in the head, in Chinese medicine, consciousness resides in the heart.

What are Acupoints?

Acupoints are specific locations on the surface of the skin where pressure is applied in order to affect the channels on which "Qi," defined as life force and energy, flows through the body. Many acupoints correspond to a local area, a regional area and/or a specific organ and channel. By stimulating these acupoints, sometimes located far from the site of symptoms, the veterinary acupuncturist can help the animal's body to heal itself by balancing its own vital energies.

Acupoints can be used for both diagnosis and treatment. Some points have easily identified anatomical landmarks and are palpable, while others are less so. Careful palpation of these points can reveal problems, guide treatment recommendations, and even be used to evaluate the efficacy of the therapy.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

It is unknown exactly how acupuncture functions, but the Western thought is that the treatment stimulates the internal pain inhibitory system which alters the processing of harmful stimuli through the release of endorphins. These endorphins block the transmission of pain from the nerve endings through the spine and on to the brain. The pain is still occurring, but the signal is not being transmitted so the animal does not feel it.

From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, acupuncture does more than relieve pain -- it restores balance by freeing the flow of Qi which circulates along a predetermined path through the body three times per day. Pain is believed to be due to an interruption in this flow either as the result of a blockage or an inability to circulate. Acupuncture can reduce or eliminate the pain resulting from the disruption by facilitating movement along the channel and reestablishing harmony.

What Can Acupuncture Treat?

Acupuncture has been shown to be very effective in treating chronic pain and musculoskeletal disorders such as lameness. It can also be beneficial for eye problems, colic (although it will not fix a surgical colic), respiratory disorders, anhidrosis (an abnormal deficiency of sweat), behavior problems, anxiety, neurological issues and immune-related conditions.

As a modality, acupuncture is minimally invasive. Unlike many more conventional treatments, acupuncture carries very few risks. The most common negative is failure of response. However, irresponsible needle placement can cause damage to underlying structures or induce premature labor in pregnant mares.


How is Acupuncture Performed?

Prior to initiating the acupuncture therapy, the horse's medical history is recorded and a physical exam is performed that includes the palpation of points. Point selection is based upon the results of the initial exam as well as the desired goal of treatment.

The acupuncturist then selects from among many methods to stimulate the points. These options include "dry needling", in which small steel needles are used; aquapuncture, which involves injecting fluid into the point; and electroacupuncture, which consists of electrical stimulation being delivered through a dry needle attached to an electroacupuncture machine. Moxibustion, in which an herb called Moxa is burned at 400 degrees Fahrenheit and placed near the acupuncture point, can also be used, as well as bleeding, which involves inserting and removing a needle from a point in order to allow release of excess blood. A 24-hour rest period is recommended post treatment. The frequency and duration of additional sessions are based on the horse's condition and the goal of the therapy.

The Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center began offering acupuncture services in September 2006. To schedule an appointment, contact 703/771-6800.

The center's next Tuesday Talk, "New Treatments for Equine Tumors," will be held on Feb. 13, 2007. Details are available online at or by contacting Amy Troppmann at 703/771-6843.

The Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center is a Leesburg, Virginia, based full-service equine hospital that is owned by Virginia Tech and operated as one of three campuses that comprise the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

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