Alternative medicine is being integrated with Western Medicine therapies more and more often. You may have seen horses getting massages, chiropractic adjustments, laser therapy, targeted pulsed electromagnetic therapy, and acupuncture. Most often, we are called in to help with injuries. However, when we look at the Eastern medicine side or Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) – this includes acupuncture, tui-na (massage), food therapy and herbals – the uses of this modality extend far beyond just rehabbing the musculoskeletal system. TCVM is based on balancing the body and maintaining the energy flow. Though you may have heard it called Chi – Western medicine refers to it as the flow of electrical conductivity. Any blockage in this flow can be from a muscle strain, a tumor, congestion, excess heat or cold, even emotion, like frustration. With age, bodies can lose balance in their systems. TCVM aims to rebalance the body to take care of the deeper root of the problem, not the symptom.  

How does it work? There are meridians along the body that control body systems, and along each meridian are multiple points – some for clearing heat, for pain, cooling, stimulating energy movement and along with those actions, the points work locally as well. These acupoints have been proven to have higher free nerve endings and higher levels of white blood cells than other areas of the body, so are truly physiologically unique to other parts of the body. When stimulated by a needle, a microtrauma causes activation to this point and in turn releases a cascade of actions – endorphin and endogenous opioid release, inflow of healing white blood cells, increased circulation.

Though acupuncture can be very useful, there are times we do not go to it first – ex. a laceration, a fractured bone, emergency situations – as those require the faster acting modality of Western medicine. However, to speed healing and deal with less urgent issues, or if you have hit a wall with western medicine, that is where TCVM shines.    

Acupuncture can be beneficial for behavioural issues, skin issues, respiratory conditions, gastric/colonic ulcers, fertility problems, roarer’s (laryngeal hemiplegia), laminitis, anhidrosis, uveitis, corneal ulcers, etc. I also use acupuncture in conjunction with Western medicine – such as, for calming in clinic, for pain control or for colic. Injuries like tendon strains/tears, muscle strains, arthritis, and nerve damage can greatly benefit from acupuncture and laser, which are both treatments we offer. You may also see us use electroacupuncture, where we attach electrical leads to the needles to add stimulation to these points – this is especially good for nerve damage conditions like laryngeal hemiplegia, facial nerve paralysis, radial nerve paralysis etc. 

The needles are very thin and bend easily to move with the muscles, therefore, most horses tolerate them very well. There are rare occasions they will not tolerate needles, and laser therapy or herbal therapy can be used. Herbals help balance the body just like the acupoints. I once used only herbals on a 20-year-old lesson horse that had a history of stomach ulcers and some behavioural issues. She was the boss mare of the herd but her pushiness became excessive at times. She responded partially to omeprazole but still made her lessons a challenge. She did not tolerate needles, and when one was in, she would stamp her leg until it was out and circle when we tried to work on her. We started an herbal called Xiao Yao San and she was able to be off omeprazole and was a content mare for her lessons. Her owners felt she was a new horse! I will also use herbals when we cannot get out to do acupuncture as often as we would like, due to distance or other constraints, or as a long-term maintenance tool like one herbal called Hot Hoof for laminitis prone horses.  

During the start of an appointment, the practitioner will perform an ‘acupoint scan’. A needle cap or a blunt instrument is run along the acupoints of the horse. Based on a flinch or sensitive reaction at certain points, it helps us to better direct the treatment. We can isolate stomach ulcers, focally sore points, or it may encourage us to use Western medicine to look for endocrine, kidney, heart or lungs issues based on which points show up sensitive on the scan.  

Studies on acupuncture in North America done in the last 50-70 years and are showing statistically significant proof of efficacy. It has been used in China on people and animals for the last 4000 years. Though it is a vastly different way of looking at illness and injury than we are used to, it is a very holistic way to treat your animal in that it works to resolve the issues underlying cause and not Band-Aid it. It has been a great extra tool in our Veterinary Medicine toolbox to help animals. The best part of acupuncture is that there are no major side effects, and it is quite a safe modality overall. I believe in not using one or the other of Western and Easter medicine, but both integrated for the best outcome for the horse and owner. Feel free to call us if you are wondering if it is the right next step for treating your own horse, we would love to help! 

Written by Dr. Heidi Bjornson

Learn more about Dr. Heidi Bjornson here.