Acupuncture Use in Equine Reproduction (AAEP 2011)

Breeding season can mean a growth in acupuncture needle inventory for many horse reproduction specialists. Such veterinarians combine strategic insertion of tiny needles with Western veterinary techniques to address subfertility issues in mares--and even stallions. During a presentation at the 2011 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 18-22 in San Antonio, Texas, Rhonda Rathgeber, DVM, PhD, a partner at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, in Lexington, Ky., discussed using acupuncture to improve mare and stallion fertility.

"Integrating principles of Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine can provide the best treatment for equine reproductive disorders," Rathgeber said. "Acupuncture is used widely in human infertility clinics, and acupuncture for infertility cases has been cited in literature since 11 A.D."

Mare Infertility

"Acupuncture stimulates increased blood supply, relieves local pain, and relaxes muscles," Rathgeber explained. "Acupuncture also increases the immunity of local tissue by stimulating the large number of mast cells at each acupoint.

"All of these factors should facilitate the uterus to be healthier, reduce inflammation, and be more suitable for implantation (of an embryo as occurs in pregnancy)," she continued. "They should also help the uterus clear any post-breeding inflammation more readily."

Rathgeber explained that she has used acupuncture to treat a variety of reproductive issues in the mare including:

  • Anestrus (mares that aren’t cycling);
  • Cystic ovaries;
  • Retained or cystic corpus luteum (which forms from the tissues remaining after a follicle ruptures at ovulation; structure is also responsible for production and secretion of progesterone in the early stages of pregnancy.);
  • Silent heat;
  • Pseudopregnancy (false pregnancy; when a mare is not pregnant, but her body tells her that she is and all of her reproductive systems react accordingly);
  • Inflammation of the reproductive tract;
  • Retained placenta (after foaling);
  • Uterine prolapse (when the uterus falls out of place, often times emerging out of the body through the vagina);
  • Uterine fluid accumulation; and
  • Uterine infections.

She has also used acupuncture to prevent abortion and, on the other hand, to induce birth.

Rathgeber described a German study of women treated with acupuncture before and after embryo transfer: The investigators showed an increase in pregnancy rate as opposed to those not treated with acupuncture before and after embryo transfer—from 26% to 42%.

Researchers on another study, she noted, found that treating women with acupuncture or hormone therapy yielded similar pregnancy rates, but the 131 women in the acupuncture group "had fewer side effects and less subsequent infertility."

Rathgeber also noted that in the aforementioned study, researchers found that those women receiving acupuncture treatment 30 minutes before in vitro fertilization had a 51% pregnancy rate and an 8% miscarriage rate. Those that did not receive acupuncture treatment had a 36% pregnancy rate and a 20% miscarriage rate.

"Although the exact mechanism of acupuncture in (mare) fertility remains to be elucidated, there is certainly plenty of evidence supporting its integration into a reproductive practice," Rathgeber summarized.

Stallion Infertility

"There is very little information on acupuncture in stallions compared with mares," Rathgeber said.

She noted, however, that because acupuncture has been well-documented to relieve equine back pain, stallions experiencing back pain "would be good candidates given the nature of their job."

Rathgeber noted there are reports of success in treating both sub- or infertile bulls and men with acupuncture, and that there are "increasing numbers of studies in men identifying the effects of acupuncture on fertility."

Researchers on one study she discussed found that 24 of 30 men (80%) receiving acupuncture treatment had an increased libido and an easier time sleeping.

In another study she mentioned, investigators revealed that men receiving acupuncture had a significant increase in total sperm function as compared to a control group with no increase.

Finally, she noted, a recent study demonstrated increased sperm motility and quantity, along with better morphology (structure) in men that were treated with acupuncture for five weeks.

Take-Home Message

While there are few studies on the effects of acupuncture on horse fertility, studies in human medicine are yielding promising results to support its application in equine reproductive practice. Additionally, Rathgeber reported success in using the complementary therapy in her own management of subfertile mares and stallions. 

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