When you hear the word “acupuncture” you immediately think of big long needles. But, what have you heard of needle-free acupuncture?
When an animal loses 22% of her body weight, something is terribly wrong. “She was skin and bones, just miserable, and struggling to breathe, like a child with asthma,” recalls Jane Preziouse. She’s talking about Isabella, her black domestic shorthair cat, who’s been on and off steroids for over a year as she battles the unexpected repercussions of a prolonged sinus infection.
Now, after a few months of acupuncture, Isabella is getting better. She’s able to eat without hyperventilating and her purr has transformed from a puttering jalopy into a sleek motor. What’s even more amazing is that her acupuncture treatment is done without needles.
Veterinary acupuncture has garnered a lot of attention from animal lovers and veterinarians. The American Animal Hospital Association and American Association of Feline Practitioners even mention it in their seminal Pain Management Guidelines for Cats and Dogs, stating that “of all the complementary procedures used for pain management, acupuncture is most supported by evidence.”
Acupuncture is thought to stimulate the nervous and immune systems, as well as release opiatelike chemicals that abate secondary symptoms and allow herbs and medicines to work more effectively. While it can treat just about everything, it’s mostly used in the veterinary world to treat chronic pain related to injuries and arthritis, allergies, kidney disease, and muscular-skeletal ailments.
Lighting the way
A body of anecdotal evidence shows it’s possible to stimulate acupuncture points without the use of needles, through either light therapy units or lasers.
Light therapy devices work by emitting focused beams of light onto acupuncture points. The technology, which looks like a laser pointer attached to a calculator, is nearly 30 years old, although there are very few formal studies confirming its validity. “The problem with the data in the literature is the same one that hampers most of veterinary literature: the case studies aren’t large enough to be statistically strong,” comments Dr. Lisa Moses, head of Pain Management Service at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.
Nevertheless, it works. “I use [light therapy] on the majority of the patients I see,” says Dr. Matthew Fricke of the McKenzie Animal Hospital in Springfield, Oregon. “Most animals do really well with needles, but this device works more quickly. I mostly deal with senior animals – that’s where most complaints tend to come. There’s a stereotype about cats, that they can leap off of things and land okay, but with all the twisting they do, they can develop issues in the upper and lower part of their backs.” While a regular acupuncture session takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, a session with light therapy takes only about seven minutes. “I started using it all the time once I convinced myself it worked at least as well as the needles,” says Dr. Fricke.
Dr. Moses primarily uses acupuncture needles in her practice, but she also uses lasers to stimulate acupuncture points in sensitive patients. Laser devices, which look like large pencils, are more focused and utilize specific, concentrated wavelengths. As such, they’re gentler than needles, and don’t cause the same heat sensations as needles and light therapy. “I use the laser for more acute than chronic pain, especially in soft tissue, like a patient with a ligament injury rather than a problem with a joint,” says Dr. Moses. “I do think I see much clearer results with needling in general, but the laser definitely has its place. It’s pretty safe – there isn’t any patient I wouldn’t use it on – but we do use eye protection.”
Acupuncture, needle-free or otherwise, is rarely used in isolation. “It’s a very powerful tool, but I usually use and recommend other applicable treatments as well,” says Dr. Fricke. Originating in ancient China, acupuncture comes from a tradition with a totally different understanding of physiology. “I may treat five cats with hyperthyroid disease or diabetes and all of them will have different presentations and treatments,” says Dr. Fricke. “It’s significantly more complicated than Western medicine, which has one medicine for one symptom.”
In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s generally accepted that healing can take awhile, which sometimes means a long commitment to treatment. For animals with serious chronic conditions, like Isabella, monthly acupuncture point sessions are a way of life. “We’ll take her as long as she has to go,” says Jane. “I don’t know much about it, but I know it works!” Isabella, breathing quietly and easily, looks up from the couch and yawns.