The definition of acupuncture is taken from 2 Latin words, acus meaning needle and puncture to penetrate.
In short, insertion of solid, fine needles into the body for pain relief or, in some cases, to help the body deal with other diseases. Acupuncture is primarily used for analgesia (pain control) but there are non-analgesic effects as well. These include wound healing, anti-nausea (well documented in humans), stroke rehabilitation, nervous system modulation and modulation of the immune system. In people it is also used in the treatment of addictions.
Acupuncture works in painful conditions by ‘fooling’ the brain into thinking that potential tissue damage has occurred. The messages received and sent by the brain rank the new insult as more important than the ‘old’ (pain). Neurotransmitters are released which include endorphins (the body’s natural pain killers), serotonin (the happy hormone) and adrenalin. There are also local effects which include nerve stimulation, vasodilation, blood vessel proliferation and nerve growth. It has been used quite successfully in the treatment of acral lick granulomas using a technique called ‘fencing the dragon’.
Cases treated most successfully with acupuncture are those with a degree of pain. This will include all degenerative conditions (osteoarthritis) as well as intervertebral disc disease. It can also be used pre- and post-operatively. It is important to note that responses vary. Some people do not have any response to acupuncture and others swear by it. This variation in effect exists in animals as well, so the response is dependent on the individual.
Many guardians are reluctant to allow acupuncture on their companions because they are concerned about the animal’s level of distress. It is a relatively painless procedure and animals tolerate it well, even cats. The effects of acupuncture are cumulative so it is necessary to schedule more than one visit. Guardians have remarked that their companions seem to make a positive association with the experience, often seeming to look forward to the next treatment when they come back to the practice. Sometimes animals may react to the sensation as though they are expecting pain, but then relax because it does not occur. Most of the time they accept the fine needles very well and often become relaxed and sleepy during the treatment. It is uncommon to require sedation.
After examination, needles will be put into various parts of the body and moved or stimulated a few times. There is not a set “dose” of acupuncture as there is for medication, so your vet will judge how much to do based on your companion’s response both at the time and after the treatment. They may become sleepy and relaxed during the treatment. It is not uncommon for companions to go home and sleep very soundly for a long time.
Acupuncture is very safe, in the right hands. Legally it must be performed by a veterinary surgeon. There have been no official reports of problems in animals, but there are some in humans and these can usually be avoided with care and a good knowledge of anatomy. There are a very few cases in which we would have to be very cautious about using acupuncture, but your veterinary acupuncturist can advise you of these.