For treating lameness, "acupuncture will relieve the muscle tension and pain and facilitate healing, " says Rathgeber. "It
is used to treat such lameness-causing conditions as navicular syndrome, sidebone, ringbone, laminitis, bone spavin and all
types of degenerative joint disease."
The results vary, and usually the more chronic conditions require more treatments before improvement is seen, while the acute
or more recently acquired problems need less treatment. Other lameness issues that can be treated with acupuncture include
neck pain, short-stepping, dragging one toe and stumbling.
Acupuncture stimulates certain reflex points to allow the body to balance energy and heal the disease, says Rathgeber. The
acupuncture points are located along the meridians and serve as booster points, stations or regulators of energy flow. The
needles stimulate the electrical system and interact with the body's metabolites — humoral, hormonal and the energy of the
nervous system, including endorphins, hormones, cortisol, electrical metabolites.
Acupuncture stimulation will relieve muscle spasms and allow injuries to heal more readily by increasing blood flow and the
body's ability to remove toxins from the site of injury. Acupuncture, as it releases endorphins and cortisol, can reduce
pain and swelling and help the body's immune system, says Rathgeber.
The horse has 361 points on its body, stimulation of which by acupuncture can produce a therapeutic effect. "The trained equine
acupuncturist must learn the location of the points, those that lie along the meridians and pathways of the peripheral nerves,"
Rathgeber explains. The points correspond to known neural structures, motor nerves, superficial nerves, nerve plexi and muscle-tendon
junctions called golgi tendon organs.
"Acupuncture uses these neural structures to achieve its therapeutic effects," says Rathgeber. "Acupuncture is mediated in
part through the nervous system, including both the somatic and the autonomic nervous systems. Especially regarding lameness
issues, the somatic nervous system includes nerves that control voluntary muscular movement and allow the body to be aware
of its movements."
There is no one treatment that has all the answers, no one approach that is a panacea, Schoen says. "Acupuncture is an excellent
adjunct to our conventional medicine and therapy. In my practice, I combine it with chiropractic techniques. The two are quite
synergistic, one working more on the skeletal issues and one mostly on the muscular issues. Together the synergy of them is
just phenomenal, one beneficial approach."
Acupuncture may be most beneficial for chronic back problems and saddle issues, says Schoen. "Lots of times the conventional
veterinarian will treat a primary joint, injecting coffin joints or knees, hocks or stifles. The thing with acupuncture is
that the horse has been compensating for those joint issues elsewhere. Often what you hear is that 'the joints were injected,
my horse has definitely improved, but it's still not back to normal.' That's because in the past we haven't looked at the
secondary, compensatory issues in the neck, the back or elsewhere. So acupuncture diagnostically helps identify those secondary,
Vonderwell agrees, saying that acupuncture diagnosis and treatment is not the answer for all lameness problems in horses,
"It is not for many orthopedic problems, and does not eliminate the need to used radiographs to aid in diagnosis. But it is
a valuable addition."
Kane is a Seattle author, researcher
and consultant in animal nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine, with a background in horses, pets and livestock.