The Point of Animal Acupuncture, by Charlotte M. Newell, DVM

Published on Friday, August 30th, 2013

It is not unusual for a veterinarian to treat an illness or injury in someone’s pet by using a needle to inject medication.  It might come as a surprise, however, when the needle itself is the treatment.

The use of small needles inserted at specific anatomic locations in order to have a particular effect is called acupuncture.  It has been used, historically, from very early times, both in humans and in animals. While commonly thought of as Chinese in origin, there is evidence for the use of acupuncture in both Europe and the western hemisphere. With the advent of modern medical techniques and drugs, acupuncture had largely fallen into disuse in much of the world, and only experienced a renaissance in the west after Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China, when press reports on its seemingly magical effects stimulated a renewed interest in the ancient technique.

Veterinarians as well as physicians were intrigued by the possibilities. In 1974, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS), was formed. The organization provides training and education in animal acupuncture to veterinarians, and has resulted in a marked increase in its use in general veterinary practice, as an adjunct to more familiar methods of treatment.

Acupuncture was traditionally thought to enhance the flow of natural energy, or Qi, throughout the body. While many practitioners use the Chinese paradigm of stimulating the flow of Qi, and balancing Yin and Yang, thus restoring harmony to the body, scientific inquiry has shown that stimulating the points used to achieve these goals does have measurable physiologic effects. Often these points are located at or near nerve endings.

The most common use of acupuncture in both human and veterinary therapy is to treat chronic illness and/or pain. Acupuncture can result in improvement or resolution of conditions that were resistant to mainstream therapies.  Such conditions include chronic skin problems, gastrointestinal disorders, and, quite often, musculoskeletal conditions such as pain due to arthritis or injury. Acupuncture combined with standard therapies can have a synergistic effect, resulting in a better outcome than with either modality alone. In this regard, it is often considered an addition to, rather than a substitute for, standard medical therapies.  Acupuncture is not meant to take the place of a thorough evaluation. In fact, an initial visit for veterinary acupuncture is usually an extended one, which includes a lengthy history and a meticulous exam,  including the standard elements of a vet visit and diagnostic palpation of acupuncture points to arrive at an ”acupuncture diagnosis”  and  aid in selection of appropriate points for treatment.

Once the appropriate points have been selected, acupuncture needles are inserted. These are solid, thin needles, somewhat resembling a cat’s whiskers.  The procedure is relatively painless, though some highly reactive points may be uncomfortable.  The needles are left in for a period of time, usually 10-15 minutes, although this will vary with the condition being treated. The needles may be inserted and left, or the veterinarian may manipulate them once placed. Some conditions benefit from electroacupuncture, in which tiny clips attached to the needles are connected to a unit that provides low level electrical stimulation to the points.

While some conditions respond to a single treatment, it is more common for a patient to undergo a series of treatments, beginning with once or twice weekly, and extending the interval between treatments as the condition responds. Often it takes an initial series of up to six treatments before any significant response is seen.

If you think that your pet may benefit from acupuncture, ask your veterinarian. You may be surprised to find that your veterinarian has had acupuncture training, or can refer you to a colleague who offers acupuncture.  The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society also offers an online (online) directory of members at  http://www.ivas.org/, which is searchable by location.

Charlotte M. Newell, DVM, is chair of equine studies and associate professor of veterinary technology and veterinary science at Becker College.

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