Acupuncture is a therapeutic modality that has been adapted over the centuries to suit various species, including horses. Treatment involves the insertion of fine needles into specific landmarks on the body to provide pain relief or improve function of body systems. [1]

Based on the condition being treated, the practitioner will strategically place needles into various acupuncture points. Most of the landmarks targeted in treatment correspond to nerves involved in pain transmission or movement functions. [1]

Many veterinarians currently use acupuncture to treat lameness, reproductive disorders, neurologic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and other conditions in horses. A survey of equine veterinarians found that 20% of veterinarians perform integrative medicine, such as acupuncture. [2]

Scientific investigations into the efficacy of acupuncture in treating horses are limited. The use of acupuncture in treating back pain and cervical stiffness in horses shows the most promise based on current scientific studies.

Acupuncture for Horses

Acupuncture is a component of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) and was first performed around 2696 BCE. [2]

The practice is based on the belief in an energy force known as “Qi” (pronounced “chi”) that flows through the body along channels called meridians. Acupuncture points are situated along these meridians, and the insertion of needles at these points is thought to balance the Qi flow, thereby restoring health.

Modern research has sought to understand acupuncture’s mechanisms within the framework of Western medicine. Studies suggest that acupuncture can stimulate the nervous system, influencing physiological processes such as the release of endorphins, anti-inflammatory responses, and blood circulation.

In the early 1970s, the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society formed, offering training courses in veterinary acupuncture. [2] Several other institutes are now operating, and today acupuncture is a common treatment method in equine veterinary clinics. [2]

Additionally, some veterinary schools now include acupuncture training as part of their coursework. [2]

Acupoints

Acupoints are specific locations on the horse’s body where the veterinarian applies an acupuncture treatment.

The scientific basis for acupoints is under debate, however most of these sites correspond with fascia (sheets of connective tissue) near major nerves throughout the body. [2] Other acupuncture points involve structures such as: [2][3]

  • Large nerves under the skin or muscle
  • Small nerves within the skin
  • Areas where nerves emerge through a small hole in a bone
  • Areas where nerves attach to a muscle
  • Areas where nerves are closely associated with blood vessels (neurovascular bundles)

Acupoints are traditionally separated into two types: [2]

  • Classical Asian meridian points
  • Nonmeridian points

Meridian Points

Meridian points have fixed locations on the body and are well-described in many acupuncture textbooks. Each meridian point has a name and specific conditions that it can benefit. [2]

The meridian points are grouped into fourteen meridians, which each extend from one end of the body to the other. [3] There are twelve meridian points named after organ systems that they regulate, a meridian running along the back and a meridian running along the abdomen. [3]

Meridian points can be reactive when there is a disturbance in the body systems, meaning that they are painful when stimulated or constantly painful for the horse. [2] Reactive acupoints often have a higher surface temperature and increased electrical conductivity when stimulated by electroacupuncture. [2]

Nonmeridian Points

Nonmeridian points (ashi) are unique to each horse, depending on the symptoms they are experiencing. These points are highly reactive and sensitive to the touch. [2] Usually, ashi points are only found on one side of the body, whereas reactive meridian points tend to be symmetrical on both sides of the body. [2]

Types of Acupuncture

There are several types of acupuncture available, which all have the goal of stimulating acupoints. [1] The main methods of acupoint stimulation are: [1]

  • Dry needling: involves inserting acupuncture needles directly into acupoints
  • Electroacupuncture: an enhancement to traditional acupuncture by passing a mild electric current between needles
  • Aquapuncture: a technique where a liquid is injected into acupuncture points to prolong the stimulatory effect

Other methods of acupuncture include: [1][4][5]

  • Acupressure: Applying pressure to acupoints manually using hands or tools
  • Hemoacupuncture: Using needs to create a small area of bleeding
  • Laser acupuncture: Using a laser to stimulate acupoints
  • Moxibustion: Using herbs held above the acupoint or a placed needle to create an area of local heating
  • Surgical stapling or acupressure implants: Using metal implants to provide constant acupressure to an acupoint
  • Cupping: Applying suction cups over acupoints
  • Pneumoacupuncture: Injection of sterilized air into an acupoint

Dry Needling

Dry needling involves inserting a solid needle into an acupoint. [1] Studies show that dry needling causes immediate changes in neural interaction patterns and local inflammation. [1]

Stimulation over longer periods can activate the opiate system, which triggers the production of natural opioids that reduce pain in the local area. [1]

Electroacupuncture

Electroacupuncture also involves insertion of solid needles, however the veterinarian applies a small electrical charge to the needles to create more intense nerve stimulation and muscle relaxation. [1]

Studies show electroacupuncture can provide pain control in the treated area by triggering the production of opioids and other neurotransmitters, proteins that control nerve function. [1]

Depending on the frequency of the electrical charge, nerves release different neurotransmitters that can have different effects. [3]

Aquapuncture

Aquapuncture uses hollow needles