Acupuncture may conjure up images of a living porcupine or may bring forth a warm, fuzzy feeling if you’ve had an acupuncture treatment yourself. Have you wondered what it’s all about? 

The science is pretty clear and much of the benefit of acupuncture can be verified with functional MRI. Very thin needles are carefully inserted to stimulate nerves in specific locations which results in effects in certain areas of the body. At a physiologic level, an awful lot happens when those skinny little needles are inserted. Acupuncture points are located at places where nerves are accessible and quite often are where nerve bundles and blood vessels come together. 

The primary goal of acupuncture is to promote the body to heal itself. Many things occur during acupuncture to make this happen and neuromodulation is a complex series of events that occur with appropriate acupuncture point stimulation.

  • Acupuncture stimulates the release of the body’s own pain-relieving substances such as endorphins.
  • Acupuncture can stimulate the release of anti-inflammatory substances to facilitate pain relief and healing.
  • Muscle spasms and myofascial trigger points in the muscles can be released at the site of needle insertion.
  • Acupuncture stimulates tissue blood flow, oxygenation and removal of metabolic wastes and toxins.

Acupuncture probably does even more than this and research is continuing in an attempt to fully characterize all the benefits of acupuncture. How can these complex physiologic responses to acupuncture be used to help our pets?

  • Pain Management is one of the most common indications for acupuncture. It can be used alone or in combination with traditional techniques for pain associated with arthritis, hip dysplasia, surgery, cancer, trauma or injury and intervertebral disk disease, a common and very painful condition of the spine. 
  • Neurological problems such as loss of motor function due to a ruptured disk or trauma to a nerve can respond very well to acupuncture and E-Stim.
  • Elimination disorders such as fecal and urinary incontinence can be addressed with acupuncture.
  • Acupuncture can help with incontinence, certain skin problems and other disorders.
  • Acupuncture can be used as part of a preventive care program (as is common in China) including helping athletes (agility, dock diving, lure coursing) stay in top physical condition.

Do pets tolerate acupuncture well? Indeed, most do remarkably well with acupuncture. We generally start with calming points that promote relaxation followed by the specific acupuncture points indicated by the treatment plan. Some animals actually start to fall asleep during treatment! Acupuncture has been used in virtually every species from dogs and cats to rabbits, lizards, snakes, horses and goats. 

Acupuncture is very safe and side effects are quite uncommon. It can be used alone or in combination with supplements and drug therapy without any fear of a negative interaction with those compounds.

For an acute injury or problem, acupuncture may be performed only once or twice. For a chronic issue such as osteoarthritis, the treatment will typically start with frequent sessions (2-3 per week) followed by a gradual reduction in frequency as the pet improves. Neurological issues may require an aggressive schedule initially with a rapid decrease if the response is favorable. Some patients receive electroacupuncture, a form of E-stim. The additional of electrical stimulation to the acupuncture points can amplify the body’s response to acupuncture and is especially helpful in neurologic problems such as paralysis. Acupuncture is also often combined with therapeutic laser for many of the conditions listed.

Acupuncture in animals must be performed by a licensed veterinarian as understanding the specific anatomy of the species is critical to successful acupuncture as well as to prevent harm. Ideally, it should be performed by individuals with extensive post-graduate training in veterinary acupuncture, preferably those certified to perform acupuncture by one of the internationally recognized veterinary acupuncture training programs.

Acupuncture can open new doors to treating our animals by allowing us to harness and direct their own healing powers to facilitate pain control and recovery from a variety of health problems. 

Acupuncture – when ancient art meets modern science – giving us the best  of both worlds

Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, CVPP, CCRT, cVMA
Steele Pain Management & Rehabilitation Center

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