The Truth Behind Acupuncture: Voodoo or Science?
By Dr. Megan Rioux-Forker
In the last 10 years, complementary medicine has experienced a surge in popularity, with over 14 million Americans trying acupuncture. It is also becoming an increasingly popular treatment modality in our equine patients. What is acupuncture? How does it work? Does it work?
Acupuncture is the ancient practice of needling – that is, inserting tiny needles at multiple points throughout the body to affect healing. There is a long and colorful history behind acupuncture, particularly in the Chinese culture where it has been documented for the last 2500 years. Though acupuncture is typically associated with the Far East, there is some indication that it developed in other parts of the world simultaneously, such as “Otzi” the 5300 year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Italian Alps who had tattoos corresponding to acupuncture points throughout his body.
Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the Daoist principle that energy is neither created, nor destroyed. Meaning that when one part of your body is injured or diseased, the rest of the body is affected as well. As anyone who has ever injured their knee can attest, what begins as knee pain can quickly progress to lower back and neck pain through altered gait and compensatory movement. In this theory, vital life force (called chi) follows pathways through the body called meridians. Most acupuncture points lie along these pathways.
The physiology behind acupuncture is that the points closely follow nerves, relying on the underlying connective tissue and a cascade of biochemical molecules to simulate the nervous system and restore homeostasis (the innate normal function of the body). An acupuncture treatment works through three pathways to allow decreased pain and healing:
- Local reaction – Each needle causes a small amount of trauma at the site where it was inserted. This trauma increases blood flow to the area and blood brings with it growth factors, oxygen, proteins and endorphins that decrease pain and increase the body’s natural ability heal.
- Spinal cord – from the site of the needle insertion, nerves arc up to the spine, where they impact a part of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn. With enough stimulation from acupuncture, the spinal cord becomes “busy” and is unable to transmit both the sensations of feeling and pain from the periphery. This phenomenon happens because nerves are unable to fire both directions at once, so lots of input from the periphery decreases pain signaling. An example in more simple terms is when you burn your finger. What do you do? Rub it, shake it, etc. The reason that rubbing it decreases the sensation of pain is because the nerve is busy with lots of touch input.
- Brain – From the spinal cord, nerves travel up to the brainstem and cerebral cortex where the sensation of pain is translated into a visceral feeling and emotion. Acupuncture helps to both down-regulate pain sensations and increase endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals that naturally decrease pain and stress.
In horses, we use acupuncture for almost any condition affected by the nervous system. Common conditions in which acupuncture is effective include diagnosis and treatment of lameness, back pain, laminitis, neurologic disorders, eye pain and allergies. We follow an acupuncture treatment up with physical therapy exercises and stretches to make each treatment as beneficial as possible. Let us know if you feel that your horse could benefit from an acupuncture examination and treatment!