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Acupuncture As a Treatment for Back Pain in Horses

Horses, like humans, can experience back pain. It usually develops over long periods of time until symptoms become obvious. Many times, back problems may become suddenly noticeable after a fall or accident, aggravating the pain. It can cause poor performance, temperament issues, difficulty in collecting, keeping a lead and /or changing gaits. Horses can have primary back pain due to injury or congenital defect to the spine or musculature of the back. Horses also frequently develop secondary back pain subsequent to a primary orthopedic condition that results in lameness. Lameness can cause alteration in carriage of the affected limb, which can injure the paraspinal musculature of the back.

Muscle hypertonicity is the most common palpable abnormality in horses with acute or chronic back pain (Haussler, 2007). It can be represented by localized taunt bands of muscle contracture, known as trigger points, or it can affect a whole muscle belly. Chronic trigger points cause muscle weakness, shortening and stiffness. They can be extremely uncomfortable when palpated, triggering acute myofascial pain. When a larger area is more severely affected with hypertonicity it is called a muscle spasm. A muscle spasm can cause substantial pain and loss of muscle function.

The veterinarian’s knowledge of the muscular anatomy will help identify which muscles are primarily affected. As the definitive diagnosis of back pain remains difficult, treatments are usually supportive. Several methods of treatment can be used for back pain, including medical (NSAIDS, steroids, muscle relaxants), chiropractics, massage therapy and acupuncture. Acupuncture is becoming both more available and more accepted for treatment of back pain in horses, especially with chronic pain.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into specific locations to produce therapeutic effects. There are different modalities involving acupuncture, such as, eletroacupuncture and aquapuncture. Electroacupuncture involves passing a mild electric current through needles on acupuncture points while aquapuncture is the inclusion of different substances, such as vitamin B12 to be injected specifically at the target site. The result of acupuncture is pain management through endorphin and serotonin release. The benefits of acupuncture are many, as it can either be a corollary treatment to more traditional medications or can be a stand alone therapy that diminishes the need for systemic drug therapy. In show horses, where it is illegal to use drugs around show time, acupuncture can be the only effective way to manage back pain. Pain relief can be immediate although the effectiveness might have variable durations. Generally, it is necessary to perform treatments monthly for the first two or three months and then at 8 to 12 weeks intervals. In more severe cases, it might be necessary to start with weekly treatments.

Marta LaColla, DVM

Dr. LaColla can be reached at Argyle Veterinary Hospital at either WWW.ARGYLEVET.COM or directly at 940.464.3231

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