By Ed Boldt, Jr., DVM, Reprinted from Miniature Donkey Talk
The use of "complementary" therapies continues to increase in veterinary practice. While there are myriad modalities that fall within this broad term, the two most utilized are veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic (sometimes referred to as manual therapy). It is felt that as more of the population turn to complementary therapies for their own health care, those individuals then seek out such therapies for their animals. It should be stressed that the term "complementary" is the correct term for the use of veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic. These therapies complement our conventional/routine veterinary care. They are an adjunct, not a replacement.
This demonstration is intended to inform you of what veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic are, when they may be utilized to help your horse, and who you should look to for these services.
What are acupuncture and chiropractic therapies?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of a needle through the skin at predetermined sites (acupuncture points) for the treatment or prevention of disease, including pain. Acupuncture is only one of the therapies that come under the heading of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The other TCM therapy most often used in veterinary medicine is herbal therapy, using Chinese herbs and herbal compounds.
Besides the use of solid, typically stainless steel needles, other means of stimulating the acupuncture points can be used. The effects of acupuncture therapy cannot be explained in terms of a single mechanism, but rather a series of interactions between the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system. Anatomical examination of classical acupuncture points has shown that most of the acupuncture points are associated with certain anatomic structures of the nervous system. Acupuncture needling causes micro trauma that in turn causes a local inflammatory effect. This inflammatory effect results in an increased local tissue immune response, improved local tissue blood flow, and muscle and tissue relaxation. Some acupuncture points are known as "trigger points." These are tender areas found in skeletal muscle associated with a tight band or knot in the muscle. The principle trigger points in a muscle are located at its center in the motor endplate zone. This is where the nerve ends in a muscle and causes the muscle to contract. Besides using acupuncture points for treatment purposes, reactivity of acupuncture points can aid in diagnosis. When palpated, these points might show some sensitivity if there is a problem at that point, or with the acupuncture meridian or pathway that is associated with the point.
Chiropractic care focuses on the health and proper function of the spinal column, however, the pelvis, limbs, and head are also considered. Chiropractic uses controlled forces applied to specific joints or anatomic regions to cause a therapeutic response due to induced changes in joint structures, muscle function and neurological reflexes. The common principle in all chiropractic theory is that joint dysfunction affects the normal neurological balance found in healthy individuals. The spinal column should be considered from the standpoint of a "motor unit." This consists of two adjacent vertebrae and all their associated soft tissue structures — muscles and ligaments, nerves, blood vessels, and all the contents of the intervertebral space. Any disruption to the normal function of the motor unit is defined as a "vertebral subluxation complex." Adjustments are then done to correct this disruption and restore normal joint motion. From a chiropractic standpoint, there is no "bone out of place."
This is the use of the typical "Chinese" or acupuncture needle. The needle consists of a solid shaft with a handle. Needles vary in length (0.5 to 6 inches) and diameter (0.25 mm to 0.75 mm). The smaller needles are used in the lower limbs, feet, head and ear, while the larger needles are commonly used in the neck, back, and upper limbs. The needles may be disposable or reusable via sterilization. Needles with wire handles are used for moxibustion (described below). Most disposable needles now have plastic handles. They may or may not come with an insertion tube that aids in placing the needle through the skin.
This is the injection of a fluid into the acupuncture point. While initially treating the point with acupuncture (needle being placed through the skin into the point), this process also leaves behind a liquid that continues to stimulate/treat the point with pressure (due to displacement of tissue by the fluid) and/or irritation over a period of time as it is absorbed. The most commonly used fluid is Vitamin B-12. Some veterinarians who are acupuncturists may inject medications into an acupuncture point to try to combine the effect of both the acupuncture and the medication. This is done with antibiotics and hormonal medications, as well as with homeopathic solutions such as Zeel and Traumeel. Trigger points and "ashi" points may also be injected. I typically use 25 gauge, 1.5 inch hypodermic needles, but for some points, 3 to 6 inch spinal needles may be used.
This procedure involves attaching electrodes to the acupuncture needles and applying a pulsating electrical current to them. Stimulation can be achieved by varying the frequency, intensity and type of electronic pulse used on the acupuncture points. Research has shown that there are varying physiological responses to different types and frequencies of electronic pulses applied to acupuncture points. I utilize electroacupuncture primarily for neurological conditions such as facial nerve and radial nerve paralysis, and for non-responsive pain, especially in the lumbar area.
This involves the burning of an herb either on an acupuncture point (direct moxibustion) in order to stimulate that point. The herb used (Artemisia vulgaris) is commonly called "mugwort." In horses, the most commonly used technique is "indirect moxibustion." Indirect moxibustion is done by holding a burning moxa stick 1/2 to 1 inch above the acupuncture point or by attaching a moxa to an acupuncture needle allowing the heat to be transferred down the needle into the acupuncture point. It is mostly used to treat chronic muscular and arthritic pain. It has also been used on lower back points when treating equine reproductive disorders and for use around chronic wounds to promote healing.
This is a procedure whereby the acupuncture point is bled with a hypodermic needle using a technique similar to the one in humans where a finger is pricked for a blood sample. It is most commonly used in the treatment of acupuncture points in the coronary band area ("Ting Point Therapy") and other points on the extremities (head, legs, tail). There are TCM implications as to the characteristics of the blood that comes out. I mainly use Hemoacupuncture with cases of laminities and as a distal treatment.
Cold Laser/Infra-red (IR) Stimulator
These units can be useful in stimulating acupuncture points that are difficult to treat any other way. In the equine, this is most commonly seen in the treatment of points on the extremities (head, legs). Caution should be taken with the use of lasers as damage to the eye can occur. The use of Infrared Stimulators such as the CEFCO model can be safely used for eye conditions and is especially useful with corneal ulcers.
Equine Acupuncture and Chiropractic Exam — What's Going On
As with any examination, I begin by getting a history on the horse. I especially want to know exactly what the horse is used for and at what level (weekend rodeos vs. PRCA; training level dressage vs. Prix St. George; occasional riding vs. full-time training, etc.). I then ask the handler to walk the horse in a straight line away and back. I want to watch how the horse tracks, as well as how the horse carries its head and neck, and how the pelvis moves. Does the horse carry its tail to the side? Does on hip move higher than the other one? Is there a "hunter's bump" or high tuber sacrale? I then begin examining the horse on the left (near) side at the head and work my way to the tail. I palpate acupuncture points along the meridians (channels) and will do chiropractic motion palpation as I go along. I will then do the right (off) side in exactly the same manner. I check for any sensitivity at certain acupuncture points that can aid in suggesting other areas of the horse to examine. I motion palpate the horse to check for any decrease in the range of motion and flexibility of the spine and pelvis, and for any sensitivity to the motion palpation. At this time, if I feel I need to see the horse move either on a lunge line or with a rider up, I have that done. I may then re-examine the horse to see if there is any change in either acupuncture point reactivity or motion palpation. If I need to examine the horse with hoof testers or do flexion exams I will do that. Once I have determined which acupuncture points are reactive, and what areas show decreased motion, I will then discuss with the owner my findings. We discuss if further conventional diagnostics are needed and treatment options. If we agree that acupuncture and chiropractic treatment are warranted, I then begin to actually treat the horse. If we agree that conventional diagnostics or treatments are needed, I refer the owner back to their routine veterinarian.
For information on veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic contact:
The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society
PO Box 271395, Fort Collins, CO 80527
(970) 266-0777 (fax)
The American Veterinary Chiropractic Association
442154 E 140th Rd., Bluejacket, OK 74333
(918) 784-2675 fax