Arthritis, disc disease, CCL tears and many other problems can cause pain in your dog.

There are many causes of pain in dogs – from arthritis to disc disease to CCL ruptures. There are also a variety of methods to relieve that pain, both conventional and alternative. Among the latter, acupuncture is one of the most effective ways to help ease pain in your dog.

What acupuncture does

In a nutshell, acupuncture encourages the body’s own capacity to heal itself. This is done by many routes, including the stimulation of neural pathways; the release of hormones and other substances; the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system; and the local action of the acupuncture needle, causing micro-trauma, with a resulting influx of anti-inflammatories and other healing substances to the area. The end results can seem nothing short of miraculous. More than once, I have been asked if I am coating the needles with some sort of medication!

Backed by science

I received my training for veterinary acupuncture at Colorado State University, where we were taught the scientific basis of acupuncture: in other words, exactly what each needle does and how it works. Even so, when I graduated, armed with the latest research and scientific understanding of acupuncture, I harbored some doubts. I can still recall my first acupuncture patient: I selected my points and was poised with my first needle, when I had a terrible thought. This is never going to work. But work it did, on that case and most of the others I’ve treated over the following years.

Acupuncture has the backing of science and the National Institute of Health. Although it can be used to treat a variety of medical conditions, I’m going to focus in this article on how it’s used in the treatment of pain and neurological problems (also usually painful). Following are the conditions I most commonly treat with acupuncture.

1. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (or as it is more commonly called these days, degenerative joint disease) is the number one reason I use acupuncture. Osteoarthritis (OA) is an inflammatory disease of the joint and surrounding tissues. The pain associated with it seems to have no beneficial effect: for example, if cut or burn your fingers, the pain and inflammation serve the purpose of warning you not to use the finger until it is healed. OA never goes away, so avoiding use of the arthritic joint makes no sense. In fact, not using the limb actually makes OA worse as supporting muscles shrink through lack of use; the production and movement of joint fluid decreases from lack of motion; and the other limbs undergo additional wear and tear through excessive use.

In dogs with OA, the hips, knees and elbows are the most common areas I treat. The point selection for acupuncture is straightforward in these cases, and most are relatively painless with the exception of one or two knee points, and few elbow points.

Most patients see relief within three treatments given at one-week intervals.  However, for many, acupuncture alone is not enough and must be combined with other therapies that range from conventional medications to weight loss programs, dietary supplements and rehabilitation.

2. Spondylosis

Spondylosis is a condition with a foot in both the OA and neurological worlds. It involves an arthritic bridging between adjacent vertebrae that not only affects the movement of the spine, but can also interfere with the nerve roots that come out between the vertebrae from the spinal cord to supply different areas of the body. Spondylosis can cause compression of these nerves, with subsequent pain and dysfunction. (Anyone who has suffered from sciatic pain knows what I am talking about).

Acupuncture can both restore the functionality of the affected nerves and reduce the pain and inflammation. It is very common to incorporate rehabilitation exercises into the treatment of spondylosis, in addition to the acupuncture.

3. Cauda equina syndrome

Cauda equina syndrome, also known as lumbosacral disease, is a slowly progressive problem of the spinal cord. It occurs at the junction of the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral vertebra in dogs, usually resulting in some localized pain and a decrease in feeling to the rear legs. I commonly see this most frequently in retrievers, but it may be found in any breed of dog.

No one knows exactly why this disease occurs, but it is probably related to the fact that this particular area experiences increased mobility during normal exercise, resulting in subsequent wear and tear on the region. Diagnosis is difficult without an MRI, although an astute practitioner can often make a diagnosis based on history, clinical examination and radiographic (X-ray) study of the area.

There is no cure for cauda equine syndrome, but acupuncture, sometimes combined with rehabilitation, can greatly slow its progression while providing relief from the pain and neurological signs of the disease.

4. Intervertebral disc disease

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), or a “slipped disc”, is a condition that can affect any breed, with dachshunds being very susceptible to it. IVDD occurs when the pad between two adjacent vertebrae, which normally acts as a shock absorber, ruptures and extrudes some of its contents into the spinal canal, irritating or even bruising the spinal cord. At the very least, IVDD causes pain; and at worst, complete paralysis.

The classic treatment for this type of injury is surgery, to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and remove some of the disc material from the canal. Luckily, acupuncture combined with rehabilitation offers an alternative treatment. In fact, recent research has shown that this combination of treatments is similar in effectiveness to surgery. In my hands, I have seen many dogs show signs of recovery after only a few acupuncture and rehab treatments. However, this approach can involve several visits a week over a period of months, depending on the severity of the IVDD and the individual’s response to treatment.

5. Fibrocartilaginous embolism

Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) is a condition in which the blood supply of a portion of the spinal cord is affected by a clot. It usually occurs secondary to trauma.  FCE is very similar in appearance to IVDD, except it’s not painful beyond the period of time in which the trauma occurred. The treatment and prognosis of FCE is similar to that of IVDD, except that there is no surgical alternative for FCE.

6. Cranial cruciate rupture

Cranial cruciate rupture is a common problem that traditionally required surgery. Recently, however, non-surgical options including acupuncture are being put forth as treatment choices. Acupuncture as part of a rehabilitation program, with or without a knee brace, is gaining in popularity as an alternative to expensive and sometimes dangerous surgical procedures.

These aren’t the only pain conditions that can be treated with acupuncture. If your dog has pain, take him to a holistic or integrative veterinarian who practices veterinary acupuncture – to find one in your region, visit ahvma.org, viim.org or onehealthsim.org/find-a-vet.

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