Complementary Medicine: Adding Weapons to the Veterinary Arsenal

As the human population turns more to nontraditional modalities such as acupuncture and chiropractic, it's only natural for the trend to carry over into equine medicine. Ed Boldt, DVM, owner of Performance Horse Complementary Medicine Services in Fort Collins, Colo., explained to horse owners at the American Association of Equine Practitioner's Healthy Horses Workshop, held in Fort Collins, how he uses these two modalities to complement traditional Western medicine.

He said acupuncture and chiropractic could be very beneficial in treating problems such as acute laminitis, arthritis, and even decreased libido in stallions. Boldt emphasized that the purpose of these methods is not to replace what veterinarians are already using, but to add other weapons to their arsenal.

"Most of us, as veterinarians utilizing these practices, don't like the term 'alternative medicines'," Boldt explained. "It's a complementary form of medicine. It's another modality for us to use. We're not trying to turn our back on surgeries, lameness exams, or nerve blocks."

He said these treatments are best used in conjunction with what veterinarians are already using.


Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles through the skin into specific sites (acupuncture points) to treat and prevent disease and pain.

"There is anywhere between 150 to 200 traditional Chinese acupuncture points in the horse," Boldt said. Acupuncture works the interactions among the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems.

When a needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, it causes microtrauma that in turn causes a local inflammatory effect. "This inflammatory effect results in an increased local tissue immune response, improved local tissue blood flow, and muscle and tissue relaxation," Boldt explained.

He defined some of the common terms associate with acupuncture as follows:

Trigger points Some acupuncture points are known as "trigger points." Trigger points are associated with tight bands or "knots" within a muscle. The primary trigger points are located at the center of the muscle in the motor endplate zone (the site where the nerve connects with the muscle and controls when it contracts).

Points as diagnosis "Besides using acupuncture points for treatment purposes, reactivity of acupuncture points can aid in diagnosis," Boldt said. "When palpated, these points might show some sensitivity if there is a problem at that point or with the acupuncture pathway that is associated with that point. Certain acupuncture points in conjunction can guide me to look for problems in certain areas."

Boldt also described several variations in acupuncture treatments and the equipment used.

Dry needling This technique uses a typical acupuncture needle as a stand-alone. These needles can range from 0.5 to 6 inches in length and 0.25 to 0.75 millimeters in diameter.

Aquapuncture This involves injecting a liquid (most commonly vitamin B-12) into an acupuncture point. The liquid continues to stimulate the area even after the needle is removed. Some veterinary acupuncturists also use medications (such as antibiotics) in points.

Electroacupunture By adding varied levels of pulsating electrical current to the needles, the acupuncturist can control the amount of stimulation delivered to each site.

Moxibustion This involves stimulating a pointed by burning Artemisia vulgaris (commonly call "mugwort") above (indirect) or on (direct) that point.

Hemoacupunture Bleeding an acupuncture point with a hypodermic needle is most often used on areas such as the coronary band and other point on the extremities (head, legs, and tail). A veterinarian can gain insight into the horse's health by examining this blood.

Cold Laser/Infa-red Stimulator These external stimulation methods can be used over the acupuncture points when it is difficult to treat the area in any other way. The areas treated most commonly with this method are the head and legs.


Chiropractic uses controlled forces applied to specific joints or regions to cause a therapeutic response. "From a chiropractic standpoint, there is no such thing as a 'bone out of place'," Boldt explained. "Chiropractic care focuses on the health and proper function of the spinal column; however, the pelvis, limbs, and head are also considered."

Signs that a horse might require chiropractic adjustment include:

  • Abnormal or varied posture when standing;
  • discomfort when saddled and/or ridden;
  • Extending head and neck or hollowed back trying to evade pressure and/or pain or stiffness in the neck and back;
  • Wringing the tail or pinning the ears;
  • Poor performance;
  • Development of abnormal behavior;
  • Facial expression of pain or apprehension;
  • Sensitivity to touch;
  • Unusual gait abnormalities such as a shortened stride in one or more limbs; and
  • Muscle atrophy.

Treating chronic problems with chiropractic can take several sessions to alleviate the signs of discomfort or pain.

"If you've ever been to a human chiropractor, and you've had a long-standing problem, he might ask you to come back in three days or so for another treatment," Boldt said. "What they're trying to do is get past that muscle memory."

Take-Home Message

A horse's job has a lot to do with how a veterinarian treats a horse's ailments. If an actively competing horse has a hock problem and time is a constraint, often the veterinarian might inject the hock and follow that up with complementary medicine to aid in the rehabilitation and prevent future occurrences.

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for .

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