Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that can be used on a variety of animals, including our hooved friends. Acupuncture can be used to treat an assortment of conditions, and one of its greatest strengths is pain relief. For horses, some common conditions that can be treated are laminitis (also known as founder), arthritis, tendon and muscle injuries. Combining this ancient technique with modern medicine can offer more options for diagnostics and care.
Acupuncture uses small, sterile needles in certain points on the body called acupoints. There are a variety of techniques using these needles as well. Electroacupuncture connects two acupuncture points and moves electricity between them, which is a good method for nerve issues and pain. Aquapuncture involves putting a sterile solution into acupuncture points, and allows for the points to be stimulated for a longer period of time. Moxibustion uses an herb that is heated up over acupoints and is good for cold conditions more often seen over our long winters.
After hundreds of years of practicing acupuncture on horses, a scanning system has been developed to diagnose the source of lameness. There are certain acupuncture points that when tested can let us know where the horse is sore. The scan can diagnose what region of the body is painful by the way the horse reacts over certain correlated points. For example, this scanning system would be able to inform you that the horse’s foot is sore, but it would not tell you which specific structure in the foot is sore (like the navicular bone). Merging modern and traditional methods can allow for a more focused lameness exam and opportunity for directing further diagnostics if appropriate, such as x-rays.
Typically, it is recommended to do three treatments to see if there is a significant benefit for the animal. Horses are especially sensitive to the effects of acupuncture, and some benefit may be seen even after the first treatment. Some horses are very sensitive to acupuncture and can have a “De Qi” response after a needle is placed, which lets us know that they are feeling the effects of acupuncture. Mild reactions can involve the horse licking their lips, and severe reactions can include jumping and moving around. These reactions can last 15 to 45 seconds and are good to be aware of before starting a treatment session.
Acupuncture can be a beneficial addition for treating a variety of conditions in horses, especially painful ones, and it can be useful for assisting in lameness diagnosis. For horses, there is a limited selection of pain relief options available for use at home, so acupuncture is another great tool that can help with overall comfort.
Dr. Sydney Routley is a 2012 graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. She was raised in Fort St. John and first started working at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student back in 2004.