The Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach
Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles into specific skin points on the body. Acupuncture has the ability to alter various physiological body functions. Along with herbal medicine, it is probably one of the oldest forms of human and veterinary medicine in the world. Although pets have only recently been treated with acupuncture in the West, in China, horses, cows and pigs have been treated for well over 3000 years.
Apart from needles, other methods such as laser, electrostimulatorion, acupressure, moxibustion (heat), aquapuncture and gold bead implants may be used to stimulate acupuncture points. Veterinary Acupuncture is part of a whole system of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), which also include diet, Chinese herbs, massage and exercise. TCVM can be used alone or in conjunction with mainstream medicine and surgery to achieve better patient outcomes especially in cases where conventional treatment is not enough or not well tolerated.
The effects of acupuncture is not limited to pain relief. Traditional Chinese Medicine aims to rebalance the whole body and promote healing and a sense of wellbeing throughout. It can relieve muscle tension, improve blood and lymphatic circulation, stimulate nerve regeneration, the immune systems and endocrine functions. Scientific studies have shown increases in endorphins, red and white cell counts and cortisol levels in the blood stream after acupuncture. It stimulates many pathways in the body, always bringing the body back to a state of balance and homeostasis.
Recently there have been a number of studies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to observe the effect on the brain when inserting a needle into various acupuncture points. For example: acupuncturing points to treat eye problems will stimulate the optic section of the brain; points used to treat stomach conditions will stimulate the part of the brain that regulates stomach and bowel. The most exciting finding is that most acupuncture points have a regulating effect on the amygdala thereby reducing the body's stress levels and re-establishing the normal diurnal rhythms of the body.
In the west, acupuncture is used primarily when medications are not effective or contraindicated due to side effects or when surgery is not feasible. Approximately 80% of veterinary acupuncture treatments are used to treat musculoskeletal conditions e.g. hip dysplasia, arthritis, intervertebral disc disease and chronic lameness.
Many other conditions also respond to acupuncture, e.g. diseases of the skin, urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, reproductive tract, cardiovascular system, nervous system, eyes, ears, immune system and behavioural problems.
Western medicine (including veterinary science) focuses on the diagnosis of the disease underlying a patient's complaint. Specific treatments include medication and/or surgery. Veterinary acupuncture concentrates on evidence of abnormal changes in homeostasis that underlie the presenting symptoms of the organ(s) involved. Diagnosis is made according to Traditional Chinese Medicine principles. Treatment consists of selection and stimulation of specific acupuncture points. This treatment may be localized but often is generalized to the whole body and may then improve other concurrent conditions. It is perhaps the most widely practiced complementary medicine amongst veterinarians worldwide.
In clinical practice, veterinary acupuncture is utilized for its diagnostic, therapeutic and hypoalgesic properties. Hypersensitivity at particular points involved in cutaneo-somatovisceral reflexes can be used as a diagnostic aid in conjunction with diagnostic approaches routinely used in western veterinary medicine. Therapeutic uses of acupuncture include almost all chronic cases that are poorly or non responsive to conventional medicine or where the risks of conventional medicine out weigh the benefits. It is also suitable as a first line therapy for many conditions.
A vast amount of knowledge is needed before acupuncture can be practiced satisfactorily, except for a few selected treatments. It is suitable for certain aspects of first aid and emergency use. It can be regarded as a self regulating system of medicine. The neuroendocrine responses activated by the needle are the very ones the body uses to regulate its own physiological processes. As well as the neurophysiological effects, acupuncture also has inflammatory, immune modulating and circulatory effects, not all of which are understood. These acupuncture points have specific histological neurovascular characteristics, with 95% occurring within 1.0 cm of a nerve trunk or nerve branch, and nearly always near blood vessels.
Scientific advances in understanding the mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of acupuncture are increasing. Despite limited number of published research on veterinary acupuncture, Murdoch University WA is one of the first universities to undertake a clinical position to offer acupuncture at the veterinary school and to explore research opportunities. The Australian Veterinary Acupuncture Group acknowledges this pioneering move to integrate this valuable tool into veterinary science and looks forward to further advances.