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Acupuncture is one of a variety of therapies that may be used to treat animals. Simply stated, acupuncture (acus, needle; punctura, puncture) is the stimulation of specific points on the body that have the ability to alter various biochemical and physiologic conditions to achieve the desired effect. It is a means of helping the body heal itself. Acupuncture has been used successfully for nearly 4000 years on humans, as well as animals. As a matter of fact, it is still the treatment of choice for one quarter of the world’s population for many problems. It is now being utilized by an increasing number of veterinarians, alongside Western medicine, for various disease conditions. It is not a panacea, or cure-all, but in certain disease conditions it works well.
What conditions respond to acupuncture?
Acupuncture bridges a gap between medicine and surgery. In the Western world acupuncture is used primarily when medications are not working, are contraindicated because of possible side effects, or when surgery is not feasible. In China, it is often used as the primary treatment before conventional medicines and surgery.
In small animals, including exotics, and large animals, primarily equines, acupuncture is most commonly used for: musculoskeletal problems (e.g. arthritis), skin problems, nervous disorders, reproductive disorders, respiratory problems, poor immunity and internal medicine problems such as heart (cardiac) and kidney (renal) disease, etc.
How does it work?
Acupuncture is now known to affect all major physiologic systems. It works primarily via the central nervous system, affecting the musculoskeletal, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems. However, acupuncture does more than just relieve pain. Acupuncture also increases circulation, causes a release of many neurotransmitters and neurohormones (some of which are endorphins, the “natural pain-killing” hormones), relieves muscle spasms, stimulates nerves, and stimulates the body’s defense system, among many other beneficial effects. The particular method in which it works depends on the conditions being treated and the points used. Usually more than one mechanism of action is involved when each individual acupuncture point is ‘needled’.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, disease is an imbalance of energy in the body. Acupuncture therapy is based on balancing the energy, correcting the flow of energy, and thereby healing your pet.
Is it safe?
Acupuncture for animals is one of the safest therapies available when administered by a veterinarian who has received post-doctoral education in veterinary acupuncture. Side effects are rare. Occasionally an animal’s condition may deteriorate temporarily before positive results can be seen. However, if the body’s own system of healing is allowed to work and no chemicals are administered, complications rarely, if ever, develop. If an animal is extremely weak due to advanced disease, the veterinarian may choose only a small number of acupuncture points in the beginning and gradually increase the number of points, if needed, as your pet improves and gains strength.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a natural form of treatment that enlists inflammatory and healing mechanisms to maintain homeostasis and manage disease processes. Unlike some pharmaceutical treatments, there is no masking of a serious problem. Acupuncture techniques can be used for diagnosis as well as treatment.
The main disadvantage of acupuncture is the owner’s misunderstanding of what to expect from its use: the belief that the pet will miraculously improve, that all conditions can be treated with acupuncture, and that the animal will only need one treatment when several treatments are usually necessary to achieve (and sometimes maintain) the desired result. Other potential disadvantages include the chance that the pet will overuse an injured limb (because of decreased pain as a result of the acupuncture) resulting in a more serious injury and misapplication of acupuncture needles can result in eye injuries, pneumothorax, infectious arthritis, and broken needles.
The chances of these negative effects occurring in clinical practice are extremely remote. They are included here for the sake of completeness and to serve as a reminder that no treatment modality is completely risk free.
Before acupuncture treatment is performed on an animal, the veterinarian should perform a comprehensive physical medical and acupuncture examination.
To learn more on how to receive post-doctoral education in veterinary acupuncture click HERE.