How Acupuncture Works: Mixed Signals

Although acupuncture is frequently used in human and animal health, it needs to be described in terms that most people accept and understand, said Narda G. Robinson, DO, DVM, MS, who recently authored a report on the topic.

Traditional Chinese medicine explains that the invasion of environmental agents, such as cold, wind, dampness, and heat cause pain, and an upset in Yin and Yang disrupts organ function. Acupuncture is supposed to correct this, but to today's modern mind that sounds like superstition.

"We shouldn't be selling mysticism as medicine," Robinson said.

"Acupuncture is real medicine, based on anatomy and physiology," she explained. "Getting the best results comes from seeing what's right in front of us--muscle tension, imbalances in the nervous system, and the health impact of stress, malnutrition, and under- or over-exercise. Belief systems imported from China only muddy the message."

In medical terms, "Acupuncture appears to work because it dampens pain transmission in the nervous system, which means it turns down the 'volume' of painful impulses entering the spinal cord and brain, and changes our emotional state and reaction to painful stimuli," she said. "Sophisticated brain imaging techniques have told us which parts of the brain are responding to acupuncture and when, providing a 'real time' window into brain function during and after acupuncture."

Owners who want to use acupuncture to treat their horses should choose a veterinarian who approaches acupuncture scientifically, she said.

Robinson recommended that owners find out the facts about any modality before using it on their horse.

"Gain a feel for what's 'hype' and what's real," she recommended. "Find a practitioner who can explain how the treatments work, whether acupuncture, massage, herbs, or dietary supplements, so that you understand, in plain language, and find out the relative risks and benefits of various treatments first.

"If you feel uncomfortable about their claims, credentials, or how the animal responds to them, seek treatment elsewhere," she said.

The report, "Making sense of the metaphor: how acupuncture works neurophysiologically," was published in the August 2009 issue of The Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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