Acupuncture for Acute Heaves

Acupuncture has become a popular alternative therapy for chronic illness in horses, especially recurrent airway obstruction (also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or heaves). Unfortunately, there are few objective studies supporting the use of acupuncture in horses, and traditional therapies such as bronchodilators, corticosteroids, and long-term environmental management are the standard. Still, general acupuncture research has shown that the technique can release endogenous opioids and relax smooth muscle in the airways. For this reason, researchers from Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, including Debbie Wilson, BVSc, MS, Dipl. ACVA, conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a single acupuncture treatment for relief of an acute attack in horses with heaves.

In the first part of the study, 10 mares with a history of barn-induced heaves were assigned to receive each of three different treatments during an attack of heaves: Acupuncture by an experienced acupuncturist, acupuncture by a veterinarian untrained in acupuncture, and a control treatment consisting of 20 minutes of halter restraint and gentle patting. Horses were walked to a pulmonary laboratory for lung function testing before treatment and at intervals until 24 hours after treatment. In the second part of the study, heaves was induced in five horses, and to remove any possible effect of walking to the fresh air of the pulmonary lab, lung function tests were conducted on each horse in its stall or a paddock.

"We were specifically interested in the potential effect of the clean air in the lab on improving lung function," explains Wilson, "so we didn't treat the horses with acupuncture or any patting."

A significant improvement in lung function, present from one to four hours following all three treatments, was observed in the first study. By 24 hours, however, all lung function tests returned to baseline. In addition, in part two of the study, when horses didn't leave the barn or pasture, this one- to four-hour improvement wasn't seen. This led Wilson to conclude that horses in the first study were experiencing a placebo effect in response to being patted or stroked. In fact, a single acupuncture treatment was no more effective at improving lung function in horses with heaves than the calming influence of contact with human beings.

"We were very surprised by the improvement in lung function with all treatments, since recurrent airway obstruction is a chronic disease with a high degree of physical pathology," says Wilson. It's important to note that this study only evaluated a single acupuncture treatment; most acupuncturists use a course of treatments and herbal supplements designed to lessen the severity of attacks over a period of time.

Wilson, D.V.; Lankenau, C.; Berney, C.E.; et al. Equine Veterinary Journal, 36 (6): 489-494, 2004.

About the Author

Susan Piscopo, DVM, PhD

Susan Piscopo, DVM, PhD, is a free-lance writer in the biomedical sciences. She practiced veterinary medicine in North Carolina before accepting a fellowship to pursue a PhD in physiology at North Carolina State University. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and two sons.

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