What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine, sterile, solid needles into the body to prevent and treat pain and disease. Acupuncture has been practiced for over 3000 years in China and is now being used worldwide in veterinary and human medicine. It has been proven to work, providing symptom relief in human patients in a range of conditions and is now recognised as a very useful treatment in a wide range of veterinary conditions.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture works through the nervous system. Inserting acupuncture needles stimulates tiny nerve endings that carry impulses to the spinal cord and brain. This results in responses within the nervous and endocrine systems, leading to the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. In conditions that are not painful, acupuncture helps to reset the body’s normal functioning.

Will it hurt my horse?

Acupuncture needles stimulate nerves that do not cause the unpleasant feelings of pain that we are trying to treat. They stimulate other nerves that send a more important message to the brain, which is how they block pain. Sometimes horses may react to this sensation as though they are expecting pain, but then relax because it does not occur. Most of the time they accept the fine needles very well and often become relaxed and sometimes sleepy during the treatment.

Would my horse need to be sedated for this treatment?

It is uncommon for horses to need to be sedated. This would only usually happen if they were so painful that they were sensative to any touch or stimulus.

How often would my horse be treated?

The usual course is once or twice a week for four to six weeks. After four weeks we will know whether acupuncture is working for your horse and then, depending on the condition and how they have responded, we will work out a plan that usually involves tailing off the treatment so that the effect is maintained for as long as possible between treatments.

Is acupuncture safe?

Acupuncture is very safe, in the right hands. Legally it must be performed by a veterinary surgeon. There have been no official reports of problems in animals, but there are some in humans and these can usually be avoided with care and a good knowledge of anatomy. There are a very few cases in which we would have to be very cautious about using acupuncture, but your veterinary acupuncturist can advise you of these.

What kinds of conditions are treated with acupuncture?

Pain is the most common indication for acupuncture. Usually this means pain associated with arthritis, muscle strains or pain secondary to kissing spines. Other kinds of pain may also respond. Clinical signs that may be alleviated by acupuncture include: stiffness, inability to bend on one or both reins, shortness of stride, irritability and soreness, cold backs, “hopping” or bucking during transitions.

Other conditions that may be helped by acupuncture include;

  • Conditions such as constipation and diarrhoea without an infectious cause.
  • Acupuncture has also been shown to speed healing of wounds and skin infections.
  • There is some evidence that acupuncture may be helpful in recurrent uveitis cases.
  • Respiratory problems including coughing during exercise and RAO
  • Reproductive and fertility problems

What can I expect during treatment?

After examination, needles will be put into various parts of the body and may be moved or stimulated a few times. There is not a set dose of acupuncture as there is for medication, so your vet will judge how much to do based on your horse’s response both at the time and after the treatment.

And after the treatment?

It is not uncommon for some horses to be sleepy or sedated after treatment. Your horse should not be turned out until it seems completely back to normal. This is a good sign and shows that your horse will probably respond well to acupuncture, but do not worry if they are not sleepy - this does not mean that they will not respond. Horses should not be ridden for 24 hours after acupuncture and no competition should be scheduled for several days after treatment especially during the initial phase of treatment.

Otherwise treat your horse normally after acupuncture. Do not change exercise, diet or medication unless it has been discussed with your vet.

What about response?

Your horse may show one of three responses to treatment:

They may seem a little stiffer or more uncomfortable. This just means that the dose was a bit too much, but also shows that they should respond to treatment. After a day or two they will improve again and should be better than before. However, you must tell your vet so that they can adjust the treatment next time.

You may see no response. This is always disappointing but does not mean your horse will not respond; it may just be that they will take a little longer or that their improvement after the first treatment was too brief or small for you to see. We cannot say that they will not respond until after the fourth treatment. Not all animals or humans are acupuncture responders, but about 80% will be.

You may see an improvement. This may occur anytime in the three days after treatment. The signs that we are trying to treat may then return before the next treatment, but this is fine. After each subsequent treatment the effects should last for longer, so that your horse may eventually not need more treatments for some time.