acupuncture for joint pain

Can acupuncture effectively reduce pain, improve mobility and better you dog or cat’s quality of life?

If you’re interested in alternative therapies, then you probably know something about acupuncture. It uses thin metallic needles to stimulate certain anatomical points on the body. Although considered a relatively “new” modality in Western medicine, acupuncture is one of the oldest of medical treatments, originating in China over 2,000 years ago.

Acupuncture is one of the five key components of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), along with food therapy, Tui-na, herbal medicine and Qi gong. TCM is based on the belief that an essential life force called Qi (pronounced “chee”) fl ws through the body along meridians. These meridians act as channels that irrigate and nourish the body’s organs and tissues. Any obstruction in these channels acts like a dam that blocks the vital energy flow, creating pain and disease. In TCM, the body is seen as a delicate balance of opposing and connected forces – yin and yang. Among the major assumptions in TCM is that health is achieved by maintaining the body in a balanced state, and that disease is due to an imbalance of yin and yang.

More than 2,000 acupuncture points connect to the body’s meridians. They occur in areas where there is a high density of nerve endings, inflammatory cells and small blood vessels. Stimulating these points with acupuncture can promote the flow of Qi, alleviate pain, and restore balance in the body. This stimulation results in several physical effects: it releases endorphins (the body’s pain relievers), reduces inflammation, and deactivates trigger points (tender, reactive areas within muscles). Acupuncture can also help balance and regulate the immune, gastrointestinal, hormone and reproductive systems.

Joint problems in dogs and cats

Joint disease is common in dogs and cats. Arthritis, cruciate ligament rupture and intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) are some of the joint conditions that can be treated successfully with acupuncture.

Arthritis and acupuncture

Arthritis is inflammation of one of more joints. The main symptoms are pain and stiffness. The animal may have difficulty getting up, be reluctant to play or jump in the car or on furniture, be unable to walk long distances or stand for long periods. He may also limp on the affected limb or lick excessively at the painful joint. The most common types of arthritis in dogs and cats
are osteoarthritis and immune-mediated arthritis.

1. Osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative joint disease, is the most common joint problem affecting older dogs and cats. It’s caused by chronic inflammation due to the deterioration of joint cartilage. OA can be a primary disease, caused by “wear and tear” on the joints with aging, or secondary to underlying disease. Secondary causes of OA include congenital abnormality of the hip or elbow (dysplasia), trauma, dislocation of the knee or shoulder, and osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) in which an abnormal flap of cartilage forms within the joint. Regardless of the cause, OA results in pain, stiffness, decreased mobility and a reduced quality of life.

In humans, there is increasing evidence that acupuncture can play a role in the treatment of chronic OA. One study conducted by the National Institutes of Health concluded that combining acupuncture with conventional drug therapy can relieve pain and improve movement in people with arthritis of the knee better than drug therapy alone. A systematic review concluded that the use of acupuncture to manage OA symptoms in people is associated with significant pain reduction, improved mobility and better quality of life.

Acupuncture can also be helpful in the management of OA in dog and cats, by decreasing pain, increasing mobility, and potentially reducing the amount of conventional drug therapy that might be required for pain control.

2. Immune-mediated arthritis occurs when the body’s own immune cells invade the joint, causing inflammation. Conventional therapy requires high doses of immune-suppressive medications such as steroids, which can cause unpleasant side effects. Acupuncture can help manage pain and balance the immune system, reducing the dose of conventional medications the patient is taking, and in some cases, allowing them to be discontinued altogether. Studies in humans show that acupuncture is capable of reducing the inflammatory markers associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Several studies have demonstrated a reduction in pain as well as a decrease in morning stiffness with the use of acupuncture for RA.

Cruciate ligament rupture and acupuncture

This problem is common in dogs, and less so in cats. Conventional therapy often consists of surgical stabilization of the knee, and anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Acupuncture is helpful in the treatment of cruciate ligament disease in both dogs and cats. In cats and small to medium-sized dogs, it can promote healing and return the leg to full function within three to four months – without surgery. Larger dogs may not have these results with acupuncture alone; however, acupuncture used post-surgically in these dogs can help reduce post-operative pain and facilitate a quicker return to function.

Intervertebral disc disease and acupuncture

IVDD is a degeneration of the fibrocarilagenous “cushions” that sit between the vertebral bones of the spine. These degenerated discs can bulge or even rupture into the spinal canal, causing pain or paralysis.

Multiple studies demonstrate the benefits of acupuncture in dogs with IVDD. One showed that it took dogs less time to recover their ambulation and experience relief from back pain when treated with electroacupuncture (EAP) as opposed to conventional drug therapy. The relapse rate was also significantly lower in dogs receiving EAP. Another study suggests that EAP was more effective than decompressive surgery for recovering ambulation and improving neurologic deficits in dogs suffering from long-standing thoracolumbar IVDD.

How much acupuncture will he need?

The number of acupuncture treatments your dog or cat will need depends on the nature and severity of his disease and the associated pain, as well as his response. The more long-standing and severe the problem, the longer it will take for balance to be restored and improvements in pain and movement to be noted.

For most chronic pain conditions such as osteoarthritis, treatments are recommended once weekly for four to six weeks; after that, the intervals between treatments are gradually increased.

Animals with IVDD in which paralysis has occurred are treated two to three times weekly until ambulation returns, then at less frequent intervals until full function is noted. These animals will often benefit from regular maintenance therapy every three to four months to prevent relapse.

For osteoarthritis, particularly in the geriatric animal, chronic maintenance therapy, generally once a month, is needed to maintain comfort. For more acute joint disease, such as IVDD, trauma or cruciate rupture, treatments may be discontinued once function has been restored.

Acupuncture points are selected to treat the TCM pattern observed in the animal, but commonly involve tonifying or strengthening the kidneys (for the bones); liver (for the tendons and ligaments); and spleen systems (for the muscles). Local points at the site of injury or pain (hip, knee, elbow, neck, back, etc) will also be treated. For immune-mediated diseases, points to strengthen the immune system and relieve heat will be selected.

Most animals will receive ten to 20 needles per treatment. Several types of “needling” techniques are used: dry needle, aqua-acupuncture and electroacupuncture.

“Needling” techniques

• Dry needle acupuncture involves the use of needles only.
• With aqua-acupuncture, a substance such as vitamin B12 or a homeopathic medicine is injected at the acupoint. This allows for longer-lasting treatment effects. Aqua-acupuncture is also useful in dogs or cats that will not hold still long enough for dry needling, or for an extremely painful point where the animal will not tolerate dry needling. It is common to use a combination of dry needles and aqua-acupuncture in the same animal.
• Electro-acupuncture involves the use of very small electrical impulses delivered through the needles. This technique can enhance pain relief and stimulate neurological repair. It is used most commonly with IVDD and other severe pain conditions. Heat may also be applied to the needles by burning the herb moxa (Artemisia), a technique known as moxibustion. Moxibustion can help relieve pain and promote Qi flow along the channels.

In summary, acupuncture is a useful adjunct in the management of joint disease in dogs and cats. It can help with pain control, improve mobility, reduce the need for conventional pain medications and enhance overall quality of life. And most animals appear to enjoy the treatments.


Veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Hershey received her DVM from the University of Minnesota. In 2001, she became a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, subspecialty of oncology. In 2005, she opened Integrative Veterinary Oncology in Phoenix, Arizona. She is certified in veterinary acupuncture and trained in Chinese herbal medicine, food therapy, ozone and ultraviolet light therapy, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. She is a member of American Association of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, the AHVMA, and others.