Acupuncture is one of the therapies offered in the use of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) and is defined as the stimulation of a specific point on the body (an acupuncture point) to cause a therapeutic effect.  TCVM has been practiced for over 3,000 years in China and all over the world.  The earliest records of veterinary acupuncture date back to 659 B.C. by Dr. Bo Le. Since then, acupuncture has been a part of the mainstream human and veterinary medical system in China and it centers on treating the true imbalance causing the disorder, not just the symptoms. Today, acupuncture is used by itself or in conjunction with Western medicine to treat many different problems, especially pain, and promote overall good health and well being in people and animals.

According to ancient Chinese medical philosophy, disease is a result of an imbalance of energy, or Qi (pronounced “chee”).  Qi is one’s life force or vital energy and the health of the body depends on the state of Qi.  In more familiar terms, Qi exists in two opposite forms– Yin and Yang. Physiologically Qi flows throughout the body 24 hours a day through channels called meridiens to maintain the balance of Yin and Yang. When the flow of Qi is interrupted by any pathologic influence (virus, bacteria, trauma, pain, etc.), the balance of Yin and Yang is lost resulting in clinical signs of a disease state. Acupuncture balances this energy and heals disease.  In Western terms, acupuncture can assist the body to heal itself by affecting certain physiologic and neurologic changes.

Acupuncture involves the placement of fine needles along meridiens to stimulate acupoints.  In addition to the placement of the needle (called dry needle technique), the points may be stimulated in a variety of ways depending on the condition being treated. These techniques include dry needling, aqua-acupuncture, moxibustion, pneumoacupuncture, hemoacupuncture and electro-acupuncture stimulation.  Whatever the technique used, the goal is to restore the free flow of Qi, balance and function. Once the body is “balanced” it is more resistant to disease, fatigue and stress induced damage.  Many world class professional and amateur athletes use acupuncture as a routine part of their training.


Acupuncture is primarily used in sport horses to control pain and restore function. In Eastern terms, pain results from the blockage of Qi. Where there is Qi stagnation, there is pain.  Acupuncture stimulation resolves this blockage, opens the meridien channels allowing the free flow of Qi and the healing process commences.  Modern research shows that acupoints are located in areas where there is a high density of free nerve endings, mast cells, small arterioles and lymphatic vessels. Acupuncture stimulates nerve impulses that travel via the spinal cord to the brain to elicit a physiologic response. A number of studies using functional MRI have shown that the stimulation of acupoints results in the release of beta-endorphins, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters from the brain. Such chemicals are responsible for controlling pain and restoring function.  This explains the mechanisms involved in how acupuncture is used to treat and manage chronic pain in humans and animals.


There are no negative side effects to acupuncture therapy.  Some horses that are needle shy may require a small amount of sedation for the initial treatment; but most horses become sleepy during their treatment and do not mind needle placement at all.

The wonderful feature of acupuncture is that it can be used preventatively to treat an imbalance or area of stagnation (low grade soreness) before it becomes a problem (i.e. clinical lameness) or causes your horse to be resistant to training.  A trained practitioner uses acupuncture in conjunction with his or her western exam to detect and treat subtle imbalances. It is not only useful in the treatment of cases where lameness or a medical problem has been diagnosed and isolated to a specific area; but also in cases where there is not an obvious problem, but something “just doesn’t seem right”.  If your horse is in training, showing or is ridden regularly, chances are that he or she has some low grade musculoskeletal soreness that can be treated by acupuncture before it becomes a problem. Many horse owners use acupuncture as a routine part of training to try to prevent injuries.

It is important to keep in mind that some conditions may require traditional western medical therapies in conjunction with acupuncture treatment. The initial exam findings, clinical experience and response to previous or current acupuncture treatments will determine when your horse may benefit from acupuncture alone or in conjunction with a western medical treatment.  If western medical therapy is employed to treat a specific condition, acupuncture is often used as an adjunctive therapy or as long term management.

Two examples of such conditions are bronchopneumonia and chronic active degenerative hock arthritis. Bronchopneumonia necessitates appropriate broad spectrum antibiotic and bronchodilator therapy (both western treatments).  Acupuncture can be a very beneficial adjunctive therapy in that it can help boost the body’s immune system, control cough and help the body expel pathogens and phlegm. It can also help minimize and treat any long term effects of pneumonia (scarring, inflammatory airway disease, etc.). In this case acupuncture is used adjunctively to conventional antibiotic treatment.

Performance horses often suffer from degenerative joint disease (DJD) in their hocks and other joints. Acupuncture can treat pain associated with DJD, slow bony changes in the joints and manage secondary muscle and back soreness. In more advanced or chronic active cases, frequent acupuncture treatments may be needed (i.e. weekly treatments) to maintain the horse’s comfort level. If frequent acupuncture visits are needed and are not maintaining your horse’s comfort for prolonged periods, intra-articular medication to target the joint pain may be indicated. Follow up acupuncture treatments may prolong the interval between injections or manage the DJD so that follow up injections are not needed.