Acupuncture has been practiced in China for over 2,000 years, and spread to other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea about 1,500 years ago. During the past 25 to 30 years there has been tremendous growth and development of the use of acupuncture in animals in the United States, Canada and Europe.

What acupuncture can do

Acupuncture has been used to treat a variety of diseases in horses, dogs, cats and other animals and many clinical studies have documented its therapeutic benefits. It is generally safe and effective and can be used to treat conditions such as pain, arthritis, muscle spasms, injured tendons or ligaments, abdominal pain, immunodeficiency, autoimmune disease, intervertebral disc disease, seizures, Wobbler’s syndrome, nerve paralysis, behavioral disorders, infertility, skin disease and improving the overall quality of life in chronic diseases.

Acupuncture is defined as the stimulation of a specific point on the body, referred to as an “acupoint.” Physiological changes in response to acupoint stimulation are the basis of clinical treatment. Some of these changes include release of endogenous opioids, immune system stimulation and blood pressure regulation. Stimulation of an acupoint causes activation of Aα and Aβ nerve fibers to conduct electrical signals through the spinothalamic tract to the hypothamalus and cause release of β-endorphins. Acupuncture also activates the descending pain inhibitory pathway which in turn activates the periaqueductal gray matter to release more β-endorphins and the nucleus raphe magnus to release serotonin. Therefore, pain is blocked with the release of these endogenous opioids and neurotransmitters. Acupuncture can also activate T-cell lymphocytes and increase the number of white blood cells which is beneficial in the treatment of immunodeficiency. Additionally, acupuncture can affect the blood pressure receptors and can influence blood pressure by either increasing or decreasing blood pressure.

Acupoints and techniques

There are approximately 361 acupoints located throughout the body. There are four types of acupoints.

1. Motor points — make up about 70% of the total acupoints and are located in areas where a nerve enters a muscle 2. Midline points — located on dorsal and ventral midlines where the superficial nerves meet 3. Nerves or nerve plexus points 4. Muscle-tendon junction points.

The three most common techniques use to stimulate acupoints include dry needle, electro-acupuncture and aqua-acupuncture.

• Dry needle is the insertion of an acupuncture needle into an acupoint. These needles are filiform, sterile and of varying widths and lengths. Dry needle is the most common treatment modality used in veterinary medicine. • Electro-acupuncture is the attachment of electrical leads to dry needles and connection to an electro-acupuncture machine. The purpose of using the electro-acupuncture machine is to control the frequency and amplitude applied to each point. This allows for more effective stimulation than dry needle alone. • Aqua-acupuncture is the injection of a soluble, sterile medium such as saline or vitamin B12 into acupoints. The purpose of aqua-acupuncture is to provide a constant stimulation by means of the pressure induced by the liquid injected into the acupoint.

Cautions and contraindications

There are certain cautions and contraindications one must be aware of when using acupuncture as a treatment option. • Care must be taken when treating weak or debilitated patients. Typically, fewer acupoints are stimulated in weak or geriatric animals. • When treating agility or other performance dogs, wait a couple of hours after training or competing before starting an acupuncture treatment. • Acupoints around the thoracic cavity require a more shallow insertion than other acupoints located on large muscle groups such as the gluteals. • One must be cautious when using acupoints around the eyes so as to not puncture the globe. • It is contraindicated to insert a needle directly into a mass, tumor, open wound, umbilicus or scar tissue. • Specific points, especially those around the lower abdomen and lower lumbar spine, are contraindicated during pregnancy. • Electro-acupuncture is contraindicated in patients with a pacemaker or a history of seizures, and should be used with caution in patients with congestive heart failure.

In summary, acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of diseases including pain, neurological dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, dermatological conditions and anxiety. Different acupoints and different methods of stimulation can be employed to treat specific diseases. Although few, there are some cautions and contraindications to using acupuncture therapy. Therefore, it is highly recommend that a licensed veterinarian take a course certifying him or her in veterinary acupuncture before implementing it as part of his/her practice. With the increasing amount of clinical trials and research being performed on acupuncture therapy, we have a better understanding of its mechanisms of action and therapeutic benefits.

Studies and what they have shown

1. Studies have found that electro-acupuncture produced a significant analgesic effect on inflammatory pain in rats with collagen-induced arthritis.
2. Another study proved that electro-acupuncture is more effective than dry needle acupuncture and that electro-acupuncture at acupoint ST-36 (local stifle point) may have anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic and immune-regulatory effects on collagen-induced arthritis in mice.
3. Several studies have revealed that visceral pain associated with rat irritable bowel syndrome can be effectively treated with electro-acupuncture.
4. One study showed that electro-acupuncture at ST-36 enhances natural killer cell activity and complement activity which indicates the usefulness of ST-36 in immune system activation.
5. Another demonstrated that electro-acupuncture combined with standard Western medical treatment was effective and resulted in shorter time to recover ambulation and deep pain perception than did the use of Western treatment alone in dogs with signs of thoracolumbar intervertebral disc disease.
6. Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture has anti-depressive effects in both humans and rats.
7. The results of yet another study indicated that acupuncture is an effective treatment for pruritis and that this effect is due to the anti-pruritic effect of kappa-opioid receptor activation induced by acupuncture stimulation.