Needling it Out
By Tiffany Margolin, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, NAET Certified
In recent years, acupuncture has begun to find its way into mainstream veterinary medicine. Not two days ago I was sitting in an informal meeting with several alternative/integrative medicine practitioners. We were discussing how acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal and homeopathic medicine had made its way, finally, into increasing numbers of veterinary clinics. It seemed to me that the grassroots movement and consumer demand in human medicine had applied pressure to the veterinary industry.
I was a classic example of a Western medicine-trained vet. As a graduate in 1991, it was with great pride that I diagnosed most problems with radiographs and blood testing, and if it wasn't showing up there, it didn't exist. I used the appropriate pills (as directed by the pharmaceutical companies that conducted our seminars) to "fix" the problem.
As I progressed into the inevitable arena of refractory, unresponsive, chronic illnesses, it was alarmingly clear that we were missing a LOT. And we were missing early stages of disease or changes that could indicate the later onset of disease in pets. The occasional oddball veterinarian would mention a brush with acupuncture or chiropractic medicine. There might be a story about ONE animal that they thought benefited.
It wasn't until my own dog was showing obvious signs of stiffness, pain and hesitation to jump, with NO sign on X-rays of arthritis, that I really came on board with the needles. I quietly slipped over to the only local animal hospital performing pet acupuncture regularly.
The first day Spirit had her treatment, she was a changed dog. She trotted, tail up, into the park and leapt into the air after a tennis ball! I felt my guilt ease and my curiosity peak.
Of course pain is what most of us hear about when it comes to the application of acupuncture. However, pain is just a minute segment of what this method can treat. There are a myriad of signs, symptoms and conditions that respond to, in many cases, a combination of needling, herbs and dietary changes. Integrative medicine is just that. There is no way to separate one thing from the other, and diet, lifestyle of the pet and mode of treatment (including conventional and alternative) all combine for the best outcome.
Speaking of combining, one of the more common areas of feedback I hear is that acupuncture doesn't "hold." Well, that is extremely dependent on the condition being treated. I was just reading about intervertebral disc disease. This occurs when there is actual breakdown of disc material in the back, and the disc collapses, bulges or calcifies and causes extreme spinal pain or paralysis of the legs. As you can imagine, this is usually classified as surgical, since material is actually moving against the spinal cord and needs to be removed.
However, in many cases owners do not want to subject their beloved pet to surgery, or would like to exhaust other options prior to this one. Although the needles will not actually penetrate the disc space or get near the spinal cord, acupuncture can still be very effective in some cases. If Fido responds, as long as you are consistent about follow-up with regular treatments (a lot better than surgery if it works!), then the results will often "hold." If they do not, this is an indicator that surgery will be necessary.
In addition to acupuncture, combining several modalities will often strengthen and prolong good results. A great complement to needling is the application of veterinary orthopedic manipulation (VOM), a nontraumatic activator technique adapted from human chiropractic. This method uses a spring-loaded activator to stimulate and rehabilitate the blood supply to the spinal cord and discs. Sometimes if acupuncture doesn't achieve the desired result, VOM is used, or vice versa. More often, they can be synergistic and result in a better outcome when used in conjunction.
When combining treatment modalities, sometimes pet owners want something even less "invasive" or physical than the above treatments. I may recommend the application of alpha wave technology. This technology uses low frequency sound waves, applied to the body in various areas, to act as "electroacupuncture." There are no needles and no current is applied. Rather, the sound waves stimulate your pet's brain to produce alpha waves. These are the healing waves mammals produce when they sleep. They stimulate endorphins, relaxation and generally promote tissue repair and healing.
Now this information is not intended to steer you away from having a necessary surgery. If your pet has a fractured leg or ruptured tendon, surgery is very important-it reconnects the pieces. Alpha-sonic and acupuncture technology can then be used to speed healing immensely, as a form of physical therapy. VOM is also a very effective way to minimize muscle spasms in the back and to lower the risk of a disc problem during post-operative recovery.
In cases of organ malfunction, acupuncture gets very specific and the application of Chinese medicine principals becomes even more apparent. Customized herbs and dietary changes must often be implemented, along with regular needle application and the monitoring of blood results.
Courses in acupuncture are being taught more widely in veterinary schools and chapters on acupuncture are now found in many veterinary texts. There is a great difference in the approach Chinese medicine takes to problems as compared to Western medicine. Even the same problem in different animals may be treated quite differently by the acupuncturist. As Chinese medicine deals with the body as a whole, treatment also addresses the whole body or "constitution," correcting at various levels the imbalances detected. Thus, as the body comes into balance, the specific signs, symptoms and "problem" should respond and ultimately, resolve.
Realize that acupuncture is a cumulative treatment modality. It can often take several initial treatments to ascertain how well your pet will respond. The sessions may take from 15 to 30 or more minutes. The good news is that, in the hands of a certified and trained practitioner, your pet should have no discomfort and will actually be quite relaxed following these sessions.
One of the most important things to remember is to seek an integrative veterinarian who is aligned with your philosophy and will work with you to find a whole-body approach to your pet's problem. This way, you and Fido will live longer and healthier together.