Acupuncture is without a doubt one of the most field-tested techniques available in complementary medicine. For skeptics who question the effectiveness of this popular therapy, a large amount of empirical, as well as experimental, information and studies show the effectiveness of acupuncture.
In its purest sense, acupuncture involves the placement of tiny needles into various parts of a pet’s body. These needles stimulate the acupuncture points, which can affect a resolution of the clinical signs. The points are chosen based on diagnostic tests and or traditional formulas that are known to help pets with specific problems. The points correspond to areas of the body that contain nerves and blood vessels. By stimulating these points, acupuncture causes a combination of pain relief, stimulation of the immune system, and alterations in blood vessels, causing a decrease in clinical signs. Other forms of acupuncture are often chosen to provide the pet more prolonged stimulation, as they produce a higher and more continuous level of stimulation.
Laser therapy. Acupuncture points may be stimulated by low intensity or cold lasers to promote positive physiologic effects associated with healing and decreased pain and inflammation.
Aquapuncture. Aquapuncture utilizes the injection of tiny amounts of fluid (often vitamins, but also sterile water, antibiotics, herbal extracts, analgesics, local anesthetics, corticosteroids, nonsteroidal medications, or electrolyte solutions) at the acupuncture site for a more prolonged effect.
Implantation. To achieve a more prolonged and intense stimulation of acupuncture points, various objects (usually beads made of gold, silver or stainless steel) are surgically implanted at acupuncture sites.
Electroacupuncture. This form of therapy uses a small amount of non-painful electricity to stimulate the acupuncture site for a more intense effect. Moxibustion. This is the burning of an herb (typically Astesmisia Vulgaris) on or above acupuncture points. The heat from the burning herb gives additional stimulation to the acupuncture points. Care must be taken to avoid burning the pet.
Acupressure. This form involves applying pressure with the fingers to specific acupuncture points. Owners can be taught to apply acupressure at home to the points that have been used during veterinary treatments to augment the acupuncture treatments to give further relief from pain and inflammation.
Most holistic doctors combine acupuncture with other treatments to achieve a truly “holistic” therapy. For example, for pets with osteoarthritis, nutritional supplements that are designed to heal the damaged cartilage are often added to acupuncture treatment, as by itself it will not heal damaged cartilage. Once the pet has improved, doctors will use acupuncture on an “as needed” basis when the pet shows increased stiffness.
As a rule, acupuncture compares quite favorably with traditional therapies. In some cases, it may be preferred when conventional therapy is ineffective or potentially harmful (such as long-term use of corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication). At other times, acupuncture may be used when an owner cannot afford traditional therapy (such as back surgery for intervertebral disk disease or hip replacement surgery for the pet with severe hip dysplasia). It is ideal if doctors discuss both acupuncture and conventional therapies to allow the owner to make the best decision for the pet.
Side effects are rare. Accidental puncture of an underlying vital organ can occur; this usually happens if the incorrect needle size is placed in an area in which there is minimal soft tissue covering the organ. Infection can occur at the site of needle insertion; needles should not be placed in areas in which the skin is infected or inflamed. In rare instances, the needle can break (due to patient movement and incorrect placement and removal) and surgery may be needed to remove it.
Some pets require sedation in order to allow insertion of the needles. In some animals, clinical signs may worsen for a few days before they improve. This is not unusual in pets treated with complementary therapies and is explained by the body going through the healing process. In addition, some animals treated with conventional medications also get worse before the medication kicks in.
Many owners worry that acupuncture is painful and their pets will suffer. Usually, it is not painful. Occasionally, the animal will experience some sensation as the needle passes through the skin. Once in place, most animals will relax, and some may become sleepy. Fractious animals may require mild sedation for treatment. Alternatively, a complementary therapy to calm the pet, such as an herbal remedy called Rescue Remedy, can be used prior to and during acupuncture treatment.
The number of acupuncture treatments that a pet will require varies. Usually, owners are asked to commit to eight treatments (two to three a week) to assess whether it will work. On average, treatments last about 15 to 30 minutes for needle acupuncture and five to ten minutes for aquapuncture or electroacupuncture. If the pet improves, acupuncture is done as needed to control the symptoms. Other therapies may be used to decrease the number of visits for acupuncture.
While acupuncture can be useful for a variety of disorders, most clients seek therapy for pets with musculoskeletal or neurological disorders.
Numerous reports in the human medical literature attest to the benefits of acupuncture. One study showed 65 percent of people treated with chronic neck and shoulder pain achieved longterm improvement. Another study of 22 patients with chronic low back pain showed a 79.1 percent success rate. Acupuncture was twice as effective as the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication piroxicam.
In pets, one study found 70 percent of dogs with chronic degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis) showed greater than 50 percent improvement in mobility after treatment with acupuncture. In pets with osteoarthritis, acupuncture has been theorized to work by relieving muscle spasms around the joint, by producing pain relief by stimulating central endorphin releasing systems, by improving blood circulation, by direct anti-inflammatory effects, and by releasing local trigger points and relieving stiffness. Chinese medical theory holds it works by unblocking Qi and blood in the body’s meridians and treating the Bi syndrome.
A proper diagnosis must be made prior to starting therapy. Acupuncture cannot be effective for treatment of osteoarthritis if the pet doesn’t actually have osteoarthritis. Many dogs treated incorrectly for osteoarthritis, in fact, have a neurological disease. This requires different therapy.
Therapies include the use of corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Corticosteroids can be given by injection, by mouth, or by both. The most commonly used are prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone, and triamcinolone. Injections can be short-acting or longer-acting injections.
While very effective when used to relieve pain and inflammation, they have both short and longterm side effects. Short-term include increased water intake, increased urination, increased appetite, destruction of joint cartilage, and very rarely, either depression or excitability. Long-term effects that can occur include suppression of the immune system, infections, diabetes, liver disease, osteoporosis, Cushing’s disease, and obesity. Side effects are common in dogs but relatively rare in cats.
When needed, short-term use of fast-acting corticosteroids is preferred. Depot (long-lasting) injections, while commonly used in cats, should rarely, if ever, be used in dogs. In cats, an occasional depot injection (one to three a year) is usually not associated with side effects. However short-acting injections and oral medications are preferred. Side effects of NSAID usage include liver disease, kidney disease, ulceration of the stomach and intestinal tract, and possibly further destruction of the joint cartilage.
The safest use of NSAID therapy is combing them with natural treatments designed to restore joint cartilage, as well as relieve pain and inflammation. Once clinical signs improve, NSAIDs are safely used on as needed basis when the pet experiences a particularly painful day.
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Shawn Messonnier, DVM
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Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!
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