Acupuncture is an ancient healing art that dates back 5,000 years. Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors discovered centuries ago that the body has an amazing power to heal itself if given the right stimulation.
Although the benefits of acupuncture have been known for a long time, it is only recently that science has stepped in to prove it. Medical Acupuncture is an off shoot of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). While TCM approaches the body from a more spiritual standpoint, Medical Acupuncture has a Western Medicine approach. In TCM, body organs are divided into elements like wood, fire and water. TCM doctors are taught how diseases of certain organs will offset the balance in the body, leading to a disruption in the normal flow of qi (energy).
Medical acupuncture is a scientific approach to acupuncture. It looks at acupuncture points as a way to access and modify the body’s nervous system. In medical acupuncture, the approach to the patient is to first identify areas of the body that are not functioning properly, and then to stimulate the body’s nervous system to promote self-healing.
Medical acupuncture looks to modulate or influence the nervous system in two different ways; by over-riding painful nerve signals with non-painful ones, and by stimulating the body’s own natural pain-relieving centers.
The best way to describe how acupuncture can over-ride a painful nerve signal is with an example. What do you do if you burn your finger? You shake it, or put it in your mouth, or put your finger under cold water. What you are actually doing is interrupting that painful signal from the burn that is traveling up to your brain. You instinctually know that you need to provide your nervous system with a different nerve signal when you are in pain. This is called neuromodulating- using the same nerve pathways that are sending a painful response to now send an innocuous response.
In the case of the burnt finger- that pain response if very useful. It makes you pull your finger away from the flame. Acute pain helps the body prevent further injury. Chronic pain is a different type of pain. Chronic pain is not useful to the patient, but rather decreases the patient’s quality of life. One of the most common examples of chronic pain in veterinary patients are pets that suffer from arthritis pain. In this situation, the patient doesn’t benefit from his joints constantly telling the brain that they are inflamed and sore. Chronic pain is pain that has lost its useful purpose.
One of the other unfortunate side effects of chronic pain is that the body can get very efficient at sending pain signals to the brain. Our nervous systems are constantly learning. When the nervous system “learns” that a part of the body is painful for prolonged periods of time, it lays a pain pathway into the central nervous system. Now the nervous system can quickly and efficiently let the brain know about the sore spot. Once a pain pathway is hardwired in, it is difficult to turn off. Even removing the painful area can’t always remove the feeling of pain. That’s why amputees feel phantom pain even after the painful limb is gone. Acupuncture is a tool that can help us reach in and turn off the deep nerve pathways that are sending painful signals.
The second layer of pain relief that acupuncture can provide is to stimulate the body’s own pain relieving system. You’ve likely heard of a “runner’s high”, when the body releases natural endorphins that make the person have a feeling of elation. Acupuncture can tap into the system that stimulates endorphins and other natural opioids and pain-relieving hormones. There are centers of the body that have been shown to “link up” to areas of the brain that directly affect this natural pain relieving system.
Acupuncture is a wonderful tool as a supplement to traditional western medicine. It is one more way that we as veterinarians can positively affect our patients. It should be noted, however, that not all patients respond to acupuncture. Only about 30-40% of veterinary patients will have a noticeable improvement after a treatment. The typical patient will respond after the first treatment if they are “acupuncture responders”. Most patients are seen weekly for 4 treatments, then as needed after that. The goal of medical acupuncture is to re-train the nervous system to “tune out” the painful nerve signals and return to a more normal state. Many patients need to only come in every several months after their initial treatment regimen.
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