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Canine Trauma

Veterinarians Point to Acupuncture’s Healing Powers

Written by: Wes Alwan, Staff Writer -

Needles may be indicated for your animal’s chronic arthritis. A lot of them.

Thought by many to be an ineffective "new age" therapy, acupuncture is gaining acceptance in recent years in some parts of the traditional medical community and, increasingly, among veterinarians. Practiced in China for about 4,000 years, acupuncture involves the use of very fine needles to stimulate any of hundreds of points on the body.

Kirsta Williams, DVM, of Crow Canyon Veterinary Clinic in San Ramon, California, has been practicing acupuncture for two of her eight years of practice. While she still relies upon conventional western medications and surgery, Dr. Williams uses complementary alternative therapies to address chronic diseases that typically frustrate veterinarians.

"I was interested in alternative therapies," Dr. Williams said, "and wanted to be able to offer something in tough cases or in situations where traditional therapies cause side effects."

According to Dr. Williams, acupuncture may be used to treat arthritis, pain, nerve damage, and epilepsy, as well as liver disease, allergies, and kidney disease.

But acupuncture is most commonly used in the West as a replacement for pain medications, which, over an extended period of time, can cause side effects and even worsen diseases such as arthritis. A 1985 study in the Journal Of Small Animal Practitioners showed that acupuncture was effective in treating 70 percent of cases of canine cervical disc disease, a painful and sometimes crippling illness.

How does the average pet respond to being made into a living pincushion? According to Dr. Williams, it falls asleep.

"Animals seem to have no problem. Once the needles are placed, I leave them in for about 10 to 20 minutes, during which animals often become very relaxed and fall asleep," she said.

In her capacity as an acupuncturist, Dr. Williams primarily sees dogs, cats, and rabbits. She notes that the procedure works well on birds as well.

Ancient Tradition, New Science

So how does it work?

A study on human beings using MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, a technique for generating three-dimensional images of the inner structure of the body, shows a distinct relationship between acupuncture points and parts of the brain related to the functioning of various parts of the body. Published in March 1998 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study shows, for instance, that stimulating one point in the foot causes activity in a part of the brain involved in vision, lending some confirmation to a relationship suspected in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

Despite published studies demonstrating acupuncture’s effectiveness, especially its superiority to placebos in the reduction of pain, there are studies questioning its effectiveness as well. The National Council for Reliable Health Information attributes the successful use of acupuncture in human beings to’among other things’hypnotic suggestion, the placebo effect, and the cyclic nature of chronic pain.

Further, there is no established scientific explanation of how acupuncture works. Some have speculated that acupuncture alleviates pain by causing the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain. Others have suggested that it stimulates an immune response via various mechanisms. There are additional explanations as well.

Narda Robinson, DVM, of the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, said that modern scientific speculations concerning the effectiveness of acupuncture may end up meshing with the more metaphorical understanding of the procedure historically held by Chinese practitioners.

According to the latter, acupuncture "helps harmonize energy flow throughout the body, so that ideally you’re in a state of balance, where one part of the system isn’t getting too much energy or too little," said Dr. Robinson, who teaches an acupuncture course at the only veterinary school in the country to offer such training. She notes evidence of acupuncture’s effect on the circulation of the blood as one fact relevant to this notion.

When Conventional Methods Don’t Help

Regardless of how it is explained, Dr. Robinson said acupuncture is effective as a primary treatment for certain conditions, as an alternative to pain relief medications, or as a complement to conventional methods.

Because acupuncture "can help support the immune system, help the body fight infection, and has been shown to increase circulation, especially in poorly healing wounds, it can improve the rate of recovery after a surgery," she said.

Dr. Robinson also claims to have had remarkable responses from animals suffering from severe epilepsy and even paralysis.

"Sometimes we can restore the ability to walk in cases where there seems to be no hope, or in cases that are slated for euthanasia," Dr. Robinson said.

Hence acupuncture may be particularly useful for chronic diseases that are otherwise both very difficult to treat and incurable, such as degenerative myelopathy, a severe and crippling disease that often affects German shepherds.

"Vets who take my course are frequently experienced, and tired of hitting brick walls in cases, and find that acupuncture can often make a lot of improvement," Dr. Robinson said.

Allen Schoen, DVM, who pioneered the use of veterinary acupuncture in 1982, concurs.

"After being out [of veterinary school] for a few years, and seeing the limitations [of conventional methods], I realized that acupuncture was applied neurophysiology," said Dr. Schoen, who also received a master’s degree in neurophysiology.

While Colorado State has the only veterinary school to offer a course in acupuncture, many veterinarians are becoming certified in veterinary acupuncture through courses offered through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, which currently has 800 active members worldwide.

One Acupuncture Society trainee, Roger Valentine, DVM, whose practice makes regular use of acupuncture, notes that the procedure is generally gaining credibility in both human and animal medicine, although he estimates that 80 percent of veterinarians and almost the same percentage of the general public remain skeptical.

"Many people will naturally wonder how you stick needles in an animal and it gets better," Dr. Valentine said.

Article republished here with permission from
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