by Berkley Chesen DVM DACVS-LA
When I took the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society course I was extremely skeptical of acupuncture. I grew up in a family where science was paramount and felt acupuncture was one of those theories which claimed all of this success but no one could really explain how (or if) it worked and there were no readily double blind controlled studies investigating this ancient modality. After completing the course and becoming certified, I only just began to understand the science behind this complementary approach to diagnostics and treatments.
While I was in veterinary school, we had no formal exposure to complimentary modalities such as acupuncture. Now, it is very common for veterinary schools to offer such courses. During my time in Central Kentucky, a large part of my practice was acupuncture. Acupuncture is an additional tool to use for both helping diagnose and treat chronic and acute injury and disease. It is not a substitute for western health care such as routine vaccinations or dentistry but it can be very beneficial in place of or in addition to other treatments and even surgeries.
Acupuncture approaches diagnostics and treatments by looking at the whole, not just a symptom. For example, the horse's environment, herd mates, time of day, etc. are taken into account. Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is about balance and creating homeostasis. Although the language used when discussing TCM may seem outdated or even silly, it can be explained in Western terms. For example, we do not consider it silly to think about the need for a balance between insulin and glucose or potassium and sodium. Acupuncture is thousands of years old and has evolved slowly through a tumultuous journey surviving bans and newer forms of medicine. It is not a panacea, but a very useful modality with a scientific premise.
There are several mechanisms by which acupuncture is thought to work. These include affecting the perception of pain by increasing endogenous pain killers such as endorphins and enkephalins, as well as changing the conduction of neural transmission in the spinal column and the effect on specific centers in the brain. Humoral changes have been documented as well which affect the immune system and the endocrine system. Acupuncture also has been shown to have cutaneovisceral responses. This may best be explained as the opposite of viscerocutaneous reflexes which is a well known phenomenon in the human medical field. A viscerocutaneous reflex is one where pain is referred. A well known example of this is McBurney’s point which is a point on the skin which becomes very painful during appendicitis. Acupuncture has also been shown to increase circulation by vasodilatation.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has a committee that looks at acupuncture in a scientific setting and has shown that acupuncture is as effective as medical treatment for certain problems (as an antiemetic in patients undergoing chemotherapy, incontinence, and infertility for example). Please visit their website for more information and other studies: www.nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/
With a solid background in veterinary medicine and surgical specialty training, I have found that acupuncture is a very useful modality for both diagnosing and treating multiple problems. By approaching health issues from another direction, acupuncture has helped me become a well-rounded and better veterinarian able to offer a more complete diagnosis and treatment.