It seems a bit baffling that tiny needles placed into a body can really have an effect. Acupuncture has slowly become a mainstay treatment even utilized by western medicine practitioners, in spite of the difficulty determining the underlying mechanism of action. Why? Because it works so well.
Western medicine utilizes many diagnostic techniques to try to learn more about a patient’s disease process. The body is much easier to get information from, however, in some areas. For example, blood work is very useful for looking at liver function and health, while the gastrointestinal system is not well represented on normal baseline blood work. The skeletal system is very well represented with on X-rays, while the endocrine system can often not be seen at all. This has been the basis of many medical developments as practitioners have been driven to find new ways to “see” and understand the body organs and functions.
The nervous system has continued to be one of the most difficult systems to evaluate. MRI and CT scans give us the best imaging, but even then, while we can see the bigger organs such as the brain and spinal cord, the millions of smaller peripheral nerves are too small to be seen with imaging. We have long been told that the nerves in the periphery do not have the ability to heal once damaged, and when there function is lost, it is gone for good.
While acupuncture has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, our drive to have better diagnostics, and then better treatment options once we have a diagnosis has driven western medicine to integrate acupuncture, especially as the nervous system has proven so difficult to access with any other method.
Acupuncture needles have many ways in which they work. The “points” in which needles are placed have been identified by understanding that Chinese medicine treatments that have been refined over thousands of years, and then pairing that information with the anatomical approach of western medicine. It is not surprising that where the Chinese knew to place a needle 2,000 years ago, also happens to be a location where a large nerve bundle exits the spine, for example. Placing a needle near these nerves causes a response from the cells nearby and those cells send out signaling molecules that the nerve will respond to.
One of the most useful applications of acupuncture is in its ability to treat pain. When a disease process results in chronic pain, often the nerves get locked in a “wind up” state. That is to say, the nerve is constantly “turned on”. That nerve sends a signal to the brain that the body has been damaged and a pain response should tell the animal to stop doing that motion, there is too much damage! When that pain goes on and on, in the case of arthritis, for example, the nerves get stuck and seem to forget to tell the brain to shut of the pain, even when the animal stops doing the painful motion. If treated medically, those patients tend to need higher and higher doses of pain medications to get relief.
Acupuncture needles placed near that “wind up” nerve can send a signal to that nerve to shut off the pain. When the nerve gets that “shut off” signal, we can stop that pain cycle. The brain stops getting the message to send out pain, the nerve can rest, and the patient gets relief from the pain without relying on increased doses of pain meds.
Acupuncture needles have the ability to stimulate nerves that have been damaged as well. Patients that sustained significant damage to their spinal cord and have lost function, sensation, or may even be completely paralyzed may have hope through acupuncture. The peripheral nerve will “remember” to send signals to the brain. In the case of Dachshund patients that have sustained complete paralysis due to severe intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), we have had success stimulating nerves from the paralyzed limbs, and slowly asking the body to reroute those signals to the brain around the damaged spinal cord. The process is arduous, but in some cases, patients that had been completely paralyzed for months have regained the ability to walk.
Because nerves typically branch, we can also use acupuncture as a diagnostic tool. When we are faced with a horse that is going though a bought of colic, one of our primary goals is to figure out if this horse has the ability to get through this colic with medical management, or if surgery is the only way to help. The sooner we can figure that out, the better the odds of success for the horse. If we know that the horse is not going to get better without surgery, and we figure that out quickly, when the horse arrives to the surgical facility, it is in much better shape metabolically, than if he has spent hours struggling with colic. The better shape he is in metabolically, the more likely he makes it through the surgical procedure successfully, and has a positive outcome.
Acupuncture needles can be used along side a through physical exam, rectal exam, blood work, lactate levels, and response to medications to help determine if that horse needs to be heading to a surgical facility. Placing acupuncture needles along side a nerve that comes to the surface of the horse, but branches from a nerve that dives deep to the horses gut, can give us a method of accessing the GI tract. Using needles in that collaborative way can either provide relief to the painful GI tract, or give us the information we need to know to determine if that horse can be helped medically or if he needs to go to surgery.
In our practice, we have become more and more aware of how our patients body systems cannot be viewed as individual, separately functioning systems. Rather, we need to find the primary disease process and then consider how that disease process is affecting the entire body system. In our hands, acupuncture is just as important as X-rays and ultrasound for diagnosing the primary disease process. It is also just as important as injections and tablets for treating disease processes. The nervous system has a significant impact on nearly every other body system; acupuncture allows us to have a method of accessing this critical, but difficult to treat system.