Acupuncture is a relatively simple treatment option veterinarians and horse owners consider for a variety of equine ailments, but little scientific evidence of its efficacy exists--particularly in regards to treating laminitis. Lisa Lancaster, MSc, PhD, DVM, of Lancaster Veterinary Services, in Denver, Colo., explored how this complementary therapy can be used as part of a multimodal approach to treating laminitis at the 6th International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot, held Oct. 28-31 in West Palm Beach, Fla.

When treating laminitis, veterinarians' goals include reducing the horse's pain and inflammation, unloading the most compromised structures in the foot, and treating the underlying cause of the disease. Acupuncture can be useful and help boost efficacy of traditional treatments, according to Lancaster, with its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects and with its homeostatic (regulating) influences. The biggest asset this therapy offers for laminitis patients, however, is pain modulation.

"The needles send a message to the nervous system that can interrupt or reduce pain," Lancaster explained. Acupuncture research (performed largely on lab animals and humans) has shown that it does this by regulating the nervous system. Since the nervous system controls the entire body, she explained, acupuncture can have beneficial effects on the whole horse.

Acupuncture "dosing"--how many needles the practitioner uses, what size they are, how long they stay in, and where they are placed--is not an exact science. However, Lancaster noted that placing needles around the hoof and coronary band as well as at other points on the limb might promote blood flow and pain relief in both acute and chronic laminitis cases. In chronic cases where musculoskeletal damage has occurred, pain relief beyond the foot might be warranted, and needles could theoretically be placed in many locations on the horse's body.

In Lancaster's experience, clinicians or horse owners typically see a positive response after two to three acupuncture treatments; but as with any treatment method, it's not going to work 100% of the time.

"Acupuncture can be used in conjunction with standard protocols, both medical and surgical," she concluded. "The safety profile and lack of contraindications make acupuncture worth trying in all laminitis patients."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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