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Frequently Asked Questions

Acupuncture is the placement of very thin, flexible, sterile needles at certain points on the body to cause specific physiologic effects.  It has been practiced on humans and animals for over 3,000 years.  The first non-humans treated were horses, followed by other domestic animals.  As it is practiced today, acupuncture combines the ancient knowledge of medicine practiced in China thousands of years ago with the contemporary ability to produce exquisitely fine, painless needles.

Health is a state of balance between all parts of the body, mind and spirit, and between the inner environment (physiologic balance) and the surrounding environment.  Disturbance of this balance results in the symptoms of illness, pain or emotional turmoil.  Acupuncture works to restore a healthful balance, accessing the body’s natural tendency toward wellness, even in the last stages of life.

Does acupuncture hurt?

Acupuncture needles are thinner, smoother, sharper and more flexible than hypodermic needles.  Often an animal shows no awareness at all that needles are being placed. 

Sometimes there is a very slight pinching sensation for a moment as the needle goes in, but this sensation quickly disappears.  Once the needles are in place, the patient often feels light tingling – like snowflakes landing on your face – or gentle warmth or pressure.  If an animal indicates discomfort with a needle, that needle is removed.

Acupuncture usually induces a very pleasant feeling.  Even animals that are generally anxious often drift off to sleep during treatment!

What conditions can be treated with acupuncture?

Almost any condition involving chronic pain is likely to respond to acupuncture.  The most common problems treated with acupuncture are musculoskeletal conditions such as hip arthritis and intervertebral disc disease.  Other problems involving bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are also highly responsive to acupuncture.

Acupuncture is helpful for a wide range of other conditions, including:

  • Skin, eye and ear problems (e.g., allergies, infections)
  • Digestive problems (inflammatory bowel disease, chronic constipation, nausea, poor appetite, etc.)
  • Kidney and liver diseases
  • Neurologic problems (neurogenic weakness, epilepsy, vestibular disease)
  • Immunodeficiency (e.g., FIV, chemotherapy-induced immune suppression, recurrent infections)
  • Behavior problems (depression, anxiety, etc.)
  • Endocrine diseases
  • Pre- and post-operative pain management and healing

Many conditions respond to acupuncture, and each patient is unique.  The best way to find out whether or not your animal has a condition that would respond is to consult a qualified veterinary acupuncturist who practices near you.  (Find one quickly by going to www.ivas.org.)  Acupuncture is often beneficial when conventional therapies are inadequate or have unsafe side effects for a given individual.

How does it work?

Acupuncture draws on the body’s powerful ability to heal, regenerate and rebalance itself.  In western medicine, we tend to see the body as a machine.  When a part is damaged, we fix or replace it.  In Chinese medicine, one sees the body as a plant.  When the leaves are falling off, we don’t glue them back on!  We test and correct the soil, and then the plant flourishes because it has the ability and even the tendency to achieve wellness.  We simply give it the proper environment for this to happen.

The Western explanation of how acupuncture works involves the fact that specialized nerve bundles exist at most acupuncture points.  Stimulating these points sets off a cascade of events causing alterations at every level of the nervous system – from local inhibition of pain sensation to increased levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.  This in turn leads to a cascade of events flowing outward to all parts of the body, resulting in the effects observed in the patient. 

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) explanation of acupuncture is that it enhances the flow of Qi – a word with a hundred definitions, most commonly westernized into the idea of “energy,” which is an incomplete but workable way of picturing it.  Acupuncture directs the body toward a more healthful balance of Qi and facilitates the smooth flow of Qi throughout the body.  Acupuncture also corrects several other things in addition to Qi, to reduce pain, correct organ function, improve immune function, diminish mental problems such as  stress, anger and fear …and in the Chinese view, all of these are inseparably related.  Thus, the best treatment for a specific problem is to treat the whole animal for all its imbalances. 

How often and for how long is a patient treated?

This depends on the condition being treated.  Every animal is a unique individual.  Some respond faster than others.  In general, the more chronic a problem, the more therapy it will take to achieve improvement or resolution of the problem.  A typical patient might be an older dog with chronic lower back pain due to a condition called spondylosis.  Such a dog will probably need 5 or 6 treatments at weekly intervals, followed by tapering toward a maintenance schedule of acupuncture every few months.  Improvement will probably begin to show after the second treatment.  Another typical patient would be a young dog with arthritis due to hip dysplasia.  Although this dog is equally uncomfortable at the outset, he will probably only need 3 or 4 treatments at weekly intervals, followed by very rapid tapering toward a maintenance schedule of acupuncture twice a year.  Improvement will probably begin to show after the first treatment.

Are there risks associated with acupuncture?

Studies of adverse effects have shown the only problems to be needle-related and very rare (as opposed to the serious, systemic effects so often seen with conventional drugs and surgical procedures).  These needle-related problems include the risk of a broken needle, stuck needle, or bleeding at the needle site.  Broken needles are extremely rare, generally occurring only with inappropriate or low-quality needles.  Needles can get stuck when the tiny muscle fibers under the skin surrounding the puncture site go into a spasm.  These muscles are so small that this feels “tight” but isn’t painful.  (A firm tug removes the needle.)  Bleeding at the puncture site is the most common complication, but in no event will it be any worse than the bleeding occasionally seen after an animal receives a vaccination.  It is uncommon and is not painful.

It is normal for an animal to be very relaxed or to sleep for several extra hours in the day or two following acupuncture.  This is due to the body’s focus on healing (from a Chinese perspective) or due to the release of endorphins and serotonin in the brain (from a western perspective) triggered by acupuncture.  This is not really considered an “adverse effect.”

Thus, in all, acupuncture is exceedingly safe.  It is usually a gentle, pleasant experience both for animals and for their caregivers.