Acupuncture is a medical technique that involves inserting very fine, solid needles into bodies at specific points.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture has a long history in China, the Far East and ancient Europe. It has been developed into a system for diagnosis and treatment. I provide Western Veterinary Acupuncture rather than Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is based on how we understand the nervous system and pain work, and how these respond to acupuncture in people and animals.
Acupuncture involves piercing the body with a solid but very fine needle at specific points. These points can be based on the traditional acupuncture meridians or at sites diagnosed as Trigger Points in muscles by doctors and vets. Selection of the points is determined on where the pain is and how close it is possible to place a needle.
Acupuncture causes effects in three sections of nervous systems:
- The insertion of the needle through skin causes stimulation of fast pain fibres. These are not the pain fibres that cause the unpleasant sensation of pain that is felt but are the rapid signalling fibres for warning that there is potential damage. The needle is too thin to cause damage to tissue so the slow pain fibres, which cause feelings pain, are not stimulated. An example of the difference is when your hand touches a very hot object. You will move your hand away before you feel the pain because the fast pain fibres are so fast that they can signal and get a response from you muscles faster than the slow pain fibres can tell you it is painful. The effect of acupuncture is to fool the body and brain into thinking that some damage is about to occur and this triggers responses in the central nervous system. It is the same in both people and animals.
- Fast pain fibres go up to the spinal cord. Here they form connections with other nerves in the spinal cord in a ‘segment’. They also connect to nerves that travel all the way to the brain. The nerves communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters. In the spinal cord the neurotransmitters that are released cause inhibition of transmitter release from the slow pain fibres. If the segment that is stimulated corresponds to one that is affected by chronic pain then there is a reduction in the transmission of that chronic pain – it is felt less. Due to the way that the spinal cord is wired this inhibition also occurs if the opposite side of the body at the same segmental level is stimulated by acupuncture. This can be helpful if your pet is too painful to have needles placed near the site of pain but the opposite side of their body is accessible.
- The nerves that travel up to brains have connections in many places and cause the release of a variety of neurotransmitters. Some of these have powerful effects on inhibiting pain transmission all along a spinal cord but this effect is focussed on the stimulated segment. Others, such as endorphins, have an important role in making the patient feel better and less concerned about the pain overall. This results in improved demeanour in patients after treatment because they feel better. With repeated treatments there is an increase of how much endorphin is produced in the central nervous system and this improves the response to acupuncture making the effect last longer. Other than the effects in spinal cords and brains there are also local effects that happen where the needle is placed. There is a localised increase in blood flow as capillaries dilate and a release of neurotransmitters from the stimulated nerves which are involved in promoting healing. There can be direct effect on the muscle if it is a trigger point and the localised area of over stimulation can be released.