Equine Acupuncture Basics

What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is method of treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) using special needles that are inserted into acupuncture points and stimulated. The depth of the needle insertion depends on the acupuncture point that is used in treatment.

Normally few acupuncture points are needled in a single treatment sessions. There are different methods of stimulating acupuncture points range from classical stain-steels needles that can be twisted, pushed to laser, electric current and heat application etc. (for demonstrations and more information see Chapter “the Basics” of the Multimedia application Practical Acupuncture for Horses.

 

How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture points can be considered as “nodes” or access point to bio-energy pathways that crisscross and connect all parts of the living body. Acupuncture points are connected to each other and to internal organs via meridians or channels that form an integrated network that might be compared to modern electronic circuits. Meridians or channels are the conduits of the vital body energy known in (TCM) as Qi. By tapping into this bio energy network via acupuncture points, the practitioner influences or activates the flow of this vital energy (Qi). In Western medicine we may associate the stimulation of acupuncture points with changes in nerve stimulation, the release of neuro-hormones and invigorating feedbacks mechanisms. Over last few decades it has been proven that acupuncture evokes a plethora of physiological reactions in the body that range through cellular, humoral, endocrine, neurological and vascular to name a few. These body’s physiological responses are believed to be directed towards restoration of physiological equilibrium and activation of the healing process.

 

Relationship between acupuncture points, organs and tissues
Some acupuncture points are directly connected to body’s internal organs such as Stomach and Lungs. These acu-points are called association points. Thus for example there is a Stomach1 association point, a Lungs association point and so on. There are 18 association points in a horse, each representing an association with an organ or system. (It must be remembered that organs in TCM such as heart, spleen etc. have much broader meaning than in Western medicine. It is a mistake to apply a Western meaning of organs and their physiology to their TCM counterparts).

This relationship between organs and an acupuncture association points is comparable with Western concepts of viscero-somatic, somato-visceral reflexes which underpin the theories for reflexology and trigger point therapy.

Pathological changes in an organ/system are reflected by characteristic changes in related acupuncture points and particularly in association points. The changes in the acupuncture points might be:

  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Sensitivity
  • Difference in texture
  • Difference in temperature: warm/cold

Palpation of association points and the detection of changes provide clues about the state of organs and meridians and serves as an aid in diagnosis and formulation of treatment protocols.

 

Yin-Yang concept = dynamic equilibrium in Western medicine?
According to TCM, normal function of the whole body and each of its organs requires two opposite ‘forces’ that the Chinese call Yin and Yang; one cannot exist without the other, and each complements the other. Treatments in TCM, including acupuncture, are aimed at restoring and preserving the relative balance between these two ‘forces’.

This concept is not as foreign to a Western practitioner as it may first seem. Actually, it is the same concept that we use as a fundamental in our Western concept of equilibrium, homeostasis or anabolic-catabolic relationship in the living body. Thus for example, proper function of the autonomic nervous system depends on relative balance between its sympathetic and parasympathetic components. Similarly, an optimal hormonal environment depends on feedback mechanisms, and so on.

The concept of acupuncture is similar for animals and humans. However, in China horse acupuncture follows a more simplified concept than in human acupuncture.

 

The human model of acupuncture

The human model of acupuncture system (among other things) incorporates fourteen major meridians that are interconnected and act as a conduit for Qi. The meridian pathways in humans are well described, precisely mapped and are an integral part of the human acupuncture diagnosis and treatment strategies. The acupuncture treatment protocol depends on a diagnosis reached via clinical examinations, questioning, and working through the matrix of TCM theories such as Yin / Yang, Five Elements, Six Pernicious Influences and so on. The set of acupuncture points chosen to treat a particular condition may or may not be the same for individuals who appear to have the same problem (at least from a Western point of view).

This is a very complex and difficult science/art and requires many years of university training as well as practical experience which is not usually a feasible undertaking for most veterinarians.

 

The equine model of acupuncture
Equine acupuncture in China has been developed independently from human acupuncture. It took is own development pathways over hundreds of years – concentrating on formulating treatment strategies for common problems. The four major noticeable differences between human and equine acupuncture systems are as follows:

  • The meridian pathways in a horse have not been established or mapped. Therefore, they are not used in the same manner as in the human model.
  • The complex theories of TCM are not used in formulating treatment protocols.
  • Equine diseases are treated with a set of acupuncture points that has been applied and refined over hundreds of years. The practitioner may choose to modify the set of points depending on clinical examination and his/her experience.
  • Most acupuncture points have specific functions.

Chinese names of acupuncture point usually indicate its therapeutic function or anatomical location. For example acupuncture point named “Locking Jaw” indicates its use in the treatment of a condition causing muscle spasm of the jaw. Thus this acupuncture-point will be a primary point in treating conditions such as tetanus and myositis of the masseter muscle.

 

Common misconceptions about horse acupuncture in the West
Acupuncture generates as much fascination as skepticism within the medical and veterinary communities.

This situation is partly due to:

  • Misunderstanding, or a general lack of knowledge about acupuncture and veterinary acupuncture in particular.
  • Confusing principles of horse acupuncture with the principles applied in human acupuncture.
  • Assumption that acupuncture is prime treatment modality in TCM.

Modern (Western) horse acupuncture has been around and practiced by a handful of people in the West only since the late 1970s. At that time original Chinese veterinary texts were either scarce or unavailable. Those that did exist were of inadequate quality or poorly translated with numerous errors and contradictions. Practitioners who wanted to acquire knowledge about veterinary acupuncture turned to human acupuncture publications or attended human oriental medicine courses. This led, to inadvertently transfer theories of human TCM into veterinary acupuncture. It also resulted in emergence of Western animal acupuncture system with its own (often, very liberal) interpretations of TCM. Thus, over the last four decades Western veterinarians developed their own horse acupuncture system propped by various acupuncture points and meridians charts. It has been known in the animal acupuncturist fraternity as a transposition acupuncture system. This system is based on the transposition of acupuncture points, meridians and TCM theories from human to horse. Regrettably it has very little in common with tenets of original veterinary acupuncture.

Despite it systematic approach and therefore attractive appeal to Western veterinarians the transposition system has some obvious shortcomings:

  • Significant anatomical differences between horse and human bodies.
  • Its hypothetical nature.
  • Inclusion of a much higher number (almost one thousand) of acupuncture points compared with the Chinese approach (about one hundred).
  • Many of the listed points have a questionable location, function and connections.

However, despite its shortcomings, the transposition system has facilitated popularization and dissemination of veterinary acupuncture in the West. Furthermore, some of the acupuncture points of this system do correspond with the function and location of acupuncture points in the original Chinese model.

 

Acupuncture points and meridians concept

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Acupuncture points are physically distinctive loci on the skin and within tissues.

They are histologically different from adjacent tissue, have lower electrical skin resistance and other characteristics. Stimulation of specific acupuncture points leads to specific body responses. For example, stimulation of the acupuncture point in humans known as ST 36 causes a drop in blood pressure, and stimulation of the point known as GV 26 increases blood pressure. Also, different types of stimulation might produce different responses. It can result in sedation or excitation for example.

 

Acupuncture points – where are they?
Most acupuncture points are located:

  • In distinctive anatomical structures eg. muscle grooves and depressions.
  • On superficial nerve branches, nerve exits, nerve plexus/bifurcations.
  • Above motor points.
  • On muscle-tendon junctions, on tendons and ligaments.
  • On blood vessels, particularly those associated with motor points.
  • Additionally, some acupuncture points are motor points and many are trigger points.

 

Acupuncture points on a horse
Most acupuncture points are function points. That means that each acu-point has a main function which is usually reflected in its name. Thus for example the acupuncture point named “Wind gate” [Feng-men] gives a clue to its usefulness in the treatment of conditions related to lungs and respiratory tract dysfunction.

There are 174 points listed in contemporary Chinese veterinary text-book; many of them are surgical or bleeding points and will not be used in Western veterinary medicine. In practice, fewer than 100 are used, with 26 points being the ones most frequently selected to treat many conditions.

There are also Ah shi and bleeding acu-points.

Ah shi points are also known as local points and are similar to trigger points in the Western concept. They might have a constant location or may appear spontaneously in different areas and may or may not be known acupuncture points. They appear or become sensitive or painful as a result of prolonged muscular spasm, tension, injury or inflammation. Using acupuncture on these points can relieve pain in the immediate and referral areas.