Pins and Needles
August 6, 2012
You may not have known that we offer acupuncture as a treatment option at Grand Avenue Veterinary Center. Legally, any licensed veterinarian can perform acupuncture treatments on animals, but Dr. Karen Christopherson has completed a special course through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) and is awaiting confirmation as a certified veterinary acupuncturist (CVA). She is also pursuing certification as a certified animal pain practitioner (CAPP) through the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, and uses acupuncture frequently as part of an individual pet’s pain management plan.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is more than just poking needles into a patient. It is a systematic method of treating injuries and illnesses using tiny needles inserted in specific places on the body called points. Points are found along pathways called channels or meridians and have very precise locations in relation to anatomical landmarks, making them consistent between individuals.
Acupuncture points were originally discovered over centuries of trial and error, but modern anatomical studies have shown that these traditional points are often associated with bundles of nerves and/or small blood vessels called capillaries, and that meridians tend to run along major nerve pathways of the body.
How is Acupuncture Performed?
Based on a pet’s specific problem, a collection of points called a point prescription will be chosen for treatment. Needles are placed into these points and gently manipulated until the body “grabs” the needles – this is caused by contraction of cells called fibroblasts which tighten around the needles and slowly relax over the course of the treatment. Acupuncture needles are very small and most animals are not disturbed by needle placement or manipulation. The needles are left in place for 10-30 minutes, then removed. In some cases, additional treatments such as the application of heat, cold, or gentle electrical stimulation of the needles may be used to augment the effect of the needles.
Who Can Benefit from Acupuncture?
Although acupuncture can be used to treat or complement conventional treatment of almost any illness, in veterinary medicine it is most commonly used to treat pain. It can either be added to conventional pain medications for additional pain control or be used in place of drugs for patients who cannot tolerate drugs or whose owners would prefer not to use drugs. We have seen good success in treating back and neck pain, arthritis, and soft tissue injuries such as tendonitis. Many pets seem to show an overall improvement in their energy and demeanor as well as pain relief.
How does acupuncture work?
Although there are differences in terminology and philosophy between Eastern and Western medicine, in both cases acupuncture is used as a tool to tap into the body’s own self-healing mechanisms and move it towards a state of balance known as homeostasis.
In Eastern medicine, illness and injuries are diagnosed and described using a system of normal and abnormal patterns that affect vital organ function and flow of body fluids and vital energy (Qi or Chi) throughout the body. Abnormal patterns lead to excesses, deficiencies, or blockages of Qi, causing imbalances in the body that cause symptoms of illness. Acupuncture is used to manipulate the flow of Qi and fluids throughout the body in order to correct the abnormal patterns and bring Qi back into a state of balance. Although the terminology may sound strange to our Western ears (it is jarring to hear that your dog’s seizures are caused by Stagnation of Liver Qi or your cat’s arthritis is a result of Dampness in the Spleen), the language is simply a metaphorical framework to help choose proper points for treatment.
In Western medicine, acupuncture is most often used to treat pain. Although its effects are not completely understood, it is known that acupuncture affects several processes. These include stimulating the release of endorphins and other pain-fighting substances within the body, triggering a variety of physiologic effects both at the side of the needle and throughout the body (including improved blood flow and stimulating hormonal and immune reactions involved in self-healing), stimulation of a contraction/relaxation cycle by cells found under the skin called fibroblasts, and direct stimulation of certain types of nerves that may override signals from other nerves.
Many people have had (or have heard about) experiences where they were injured but did not feel pain or even realize they were hurt right away (for example, until after they have finished helping another victim after an accident). Similarly, many pets will “forget about” a painful limp in order to chase a squirrel or rabbit. These effects are caused by inhibitory pathways suppressing the conscious brain’s awareness of pain.
These things happen because pain pathways in the body are very complex. The simplest explanation is that there are relays of multiple interconnected nerve cells between the site of the pain, the spinal cord, and the brain in both directions (both from the site of pain to the brain and from the brain to the site of pain). These cells use many different tools to communicate with one another before we consciously feel the sensation of pain. Signals travel in both directions and there is “cross talk” between various pathways that may either increase (called excitatory pathways) and suppress (called inhibitory pathways) pain signals depending on the circumstances. In addition to its other effects, acupuncture is thought to tap into these inhibitory pathways.
If you have questions about acupuncture or are interested in scheduling a consult, please feel free to call the clinic.