Acupuncture has been used to treat the ailments of humans and animals for thousands of years. In China, texts detailing acupuncture points and indications have been found dating back to 1399 AD. In fact, until fairly recently, acupuncture, a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), was the predominant health care system in China. The United States has been relatively slow to embrace the benefits of acupuncture, but is coming around quickly. Many people now are familiar with the idea or have even been treated themselves. Animal owners, in particular, are very enthusiastic about this treatment.
The approach taken with acupuncture is a little different from the Western approach to medicine that is familiar to us. Where Western medicine seeks to control and treat disease, TCM seeks to restore balance to all systems of the body and allow the body to heal itself. An important point is that TCM and Western approaches are not mutually exclusive and actually serve to complement each other. In our practice, both approaches are often used to achieve the desired outcome in our patients.
Acupuncture can be used for many types of ailments including: body soreness, gastrointestinal disturbances, allergies, headaches and infertility problems. While there are many scientific studies stating that acupuncture treatments have positive effects, we are not entirely sure why this is so. Traditional Chinese Medicine believes acupuncture improves the flow of qi or energy, which then helps the body to heal itself.
From a Western perspective, we know that when needles are placed in specific locations (acupuncture points), there is an increase in circulation (of both blood and lymph) and a release of endorphins (natural painkillers). It is also likely that other chemicals, hormones and neurotransmittors are released with needle placement influencing our internal regulatory system. Applications in horses are not so different from those in people. For example, acupuncture can be used in horses to treat arthritis, COPD (heaves) and mild colics. One of the most striking and useful applications of acupuncture in equine practice has been with broodmares.
Much of the time things go routinely with broodmares. Days lengthen, mares start to cycle, they are bred, ovulate and become pregnant. However, for those mares that have problems getting in foal, acupuncture can help them to cycle normally and conceive.
The causes of subfertility are numerous and include poor breeding conformation, number of previous foalings, uterine infections, and chronic pain. Any of these can cause mares to cycle abnormally and/or have a poor uterine environment in which to sustain an embryo or fetus. In recent years, in addition to more well-known treatments (e.g., intrauterine lavages, implants and oxytocin), veterinarians have started to employ acupuncture.
Acupuncture can help broodmares in different ways depending on their problems and the points used. For example, a mare in constant pain from chronic arthritis will circulate cortisol (a stress hormone) which has a negative effect on fertility. Acupuncture can help to lessen the pain leading to more normal cortisol levels. A less painful horse will likely be more active in the field benefiting the entire mare, not just her reproductive tract. Another common problem is the mare that has a poorly toned uterus or difficulty clearing uterine fluid. Acupuncture is beneficial to these mares in helping to improve smooth muscle tone thereby enabling the uterus to clear fluid.
Acupuncture can have a beneficial effect on hormone levels as well. Mares that are slow to begin cycling may be ‘restarted’ by a series of acupuncture treatments.
Mares that are treated are usually seen between one and three times depending on the initial complaint and response achieved. Treatment may involve placement of needles at specific points with electrostimulation or may consist of injections of Vitamin B12 at the same points. Most mares tolerate the procedure very well, likely due in part to the release of endorphins that result from acupuncture. An acupuncture treatment generally takes less than half an hour.
The uses of acupuncture are many and varied. It can significantly improve conception in broodmares. So, if your trusted reproductive veterinarian suggests that acupuncture may be helpful, don’t think that he or she has lost his or her mind. Instead, know that acupuncture is a treatment that has been around benefiting both horses and people for thousands of years.
This article was written by Kathleen Paasch, DVM of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Kentucky.