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Alternative therapy in equine medicine

by Terry Gerros, DMV, MS

Alternative therapies are gaining renewed interest.

However, the question which remains is, do they work? An umbrella term for hundreds of therapies drawn from many parts of the world, alternative medicine is not easy to define. Representing a variety of beliefs, the therapies lack common theories or principles.

Regardless, there are many testimonials to support their usefulness and recently, some well defined scientific studies have provided more support of their efficacy.

Alternative therapies frequently aim to stimulate the natural defenses of the body rather than treat specific bacteria or other disease causing organisms. The theories are based treating the whole body as a whole, not as a disease or symptom. Some of the more recognized forme of alternate therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, are forms of point therapy. With this form of therapy generalized changes.

The origins of medicine,where do they begin? More than 3,000 years ago the Chinese developed methods of treating disease.

Acupuncture, acupressure, massage, herbology, and chiropractic are the basis of the ancient Asian healing traditions. Homeopathy, a newer alternative therapy, is also "coming into vogue."

With the development of antibiotics, antiinflammatories, nuclear medicine and laser surgery these therapies had fallen out of favor. There is an old quote which states,"the past holds the key to the future."

Many of the ancient arts are now gaining acceptance in western civilization. Although still new to our culture, veterinarians and physicians alike are beginning to study these ancient arts and incorporating them into daily practice. In this article, an overview of some of the alternative therapies are discussed.


Acupuncture rests on the belief that health requires a balanced flow of Chi, a life energy which flows throughout the body along major energy pathways or channels (meridian.). This flow of energy consists of both positive (Yang) and negative (Yin) forces which travel through these meridians. Imbalances between the Yang and Yin result in blockages of the meridians and allow pathologic conditions to begin.

Through stimulation of acupuncture points, by insertion of sterile, hair thin needles along the meridians, the flow of energy is restored, allowing healing to occur.

A form of point therapy, Chinese veterinary acupuncture was first practiced in the Shang dynasty (c.1,600 BC-c.1050BC). During the period from 403 BC - 221 BC, the Huang Ti Nei Ching, one of the oldest known documents and the Bible of traditional Chinese medicine, was compiled. In the document the Chinese philosophy of anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis and therapeutics are discussed. The Nei Ching explained the use of meridians, identified body points and discussed prescriptions for various diseases, and needle shapes and sizes. Understanding Chi and the meridian system is essential to grasp the concepts of acupuncture, acupressure, shiatsu, and even massage therapy.

A common error is the misconception that the meridian system and the nervous system are one and the same and that Chi is nerve transmission. Though closely linked to cell nuclei of tissues and the endocrine and nervous systems, the meridian system is separate and unique system. Stimulation of acupuncture/acupressure point results in the release of endorphins (the bodies natural pain killers). It has been demonstrated that fluid extracted from meridian channels contain high concentrations of DNA, RNA, amino acids and many other hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and corticosteroids (cortisone).

Acupuncture can be simply depicted as a powerful type of physiotherapy which influences the activation of the central nervous system and the spinal cord. Interestingly, acupuncture can alter the physiologic state in virtually all body systems in the horse. It is also an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, immunostimulant and immunosuppressant. Not only does it have an antispasmodic effect on smooth muscle (alleviating the signs of colic for example), but also influences microcirculation and glandular secretions.

Acupuncture treatment involves the use of needles, finger pressure or even administration of herbs to alter the flow of Chi. Needles can be rotated, twirled or accompanied by a weak electrical current or heat. In human medicine, acupuncture has been very useful in the control of pain, nausea, and easing the withdrawal symptoms of smokers and alcoholics trying to discontinue these addictions. In equine medicine I have observed positive results when acupuncture was used in the treatment of colic and various obscure lameness.


Acupressure is another form of point therapy (similar to acupuncture) where finger pressure is applied to the body surface in a general pattern or a designated points or location, It actually is one of the earliest forms of point therapy, There are several forms of external massage, the most common being the Japanese system, shiatsu. Like acupuncture, acupressure uses the manipulation of Chi as its underlying principle for treatment.It is this subtle energy that governs the cellular level of living bodies through meridians. Acupressure is not directed at the nervous system or the muscular system, though it influences these as a secondary effect through Chi and the meridians. Activation of Chi also results in the production of hormones and stimulation of the immune cells in the skin, which are part of the healing-force matrix. Like acupuncture, acupressure restores and maintains the health of the animal by moving and rebalancing Chi.


The concept of homeopathy is based on treating disease (symptoms) with medicinal which produce similar signs of disease in the healthy body. In other words, substances which cause symptoms in a healthy animal can also cure those symptoms when given in minute amounts. Instead of suppressing symptoms, homeopathic remedies are chosen for their ability to mimic those symptoms and stimulate body defenses. Vaccinations and traditional allergy treatments work on a similar principle.

In a diluted form , these drugs reduce or eliminate symptoms, if not effect a cure, With the development of this concept, the basic principle, Similia similbus curantur (like cures like) was formed and the "law of similars" conceived. The founder of homeopathy was a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann, born in 1755. During the translation of a treatise on materia medica, Dr. Hahnemann became interested in the effect of the bark of the China tree (Cinchona succirubra) in the treatment of malaria. After consuming a "dose" of China, much to his surprise, he developed symptoms similar to malaria. He also discovered that by serial dilution of the pure product, the formulation would either reduce the signs of disease or cure the patient altogether. As a result of this experiment, he investigated many other medicines on his own body. On the basis of his work, he established the concepts of homeopathy.

The principles of homeopathic therapy have been proven and Hahnemanns's theory has yet to be refuted. The remedies used in homeopathy originate from plants, animals, and minerals. Although in high doses many of these products are toxic, the medicines used in homeopathy are diluted to a point where no toxic side effects are induced. Homeopaths believe that the more dilute the solution, the more powerful it is. Some remedies contain less than a single molecule of active ingredients and , by standard analysis, are chemically inert. Homeopathic practitioners suggest the ingredients may leave an imprint or energy pattern in the water.

During the course of time the art of homeopathy has been refined. Although the principle is simple one, anyone who practices homeopathy must have a solid understanding of the medicinals used and use of the correct one, however , the potency is too high and needs to be diluted further. As with all forms of treatment, homeopathy is means of healing.


Throughout time, almost every society has used plants for therapeutic purposes. Modern pharmacy began with use of roots and plants. For example, the drug digitalis, a potent heart medication, is derived from the foxglove plant. Herbal medicines work a lot like conventional drugs. They contain chemical compounds that can prevent illness as well as treat specific conditions. Herbs can be used to stimulate the immune system, improve circulation or ease gastrointestinal distress.

One of the problems associated with herbology is the lack of standardization. Dosages may vary from one product to another. Although herbs seem to be more gentle than drugs, in large enough doses,they can be toxic.


Massage involves the use of the hands and fingers to manipulate the soft tissues of the body. Although it can be used alone, massage is often preceded by some other modality such as hot packs, deep ultrasound, or cold packs.

Massage is used frequently to heal damaged muscle fiber. Muscle injury may occur as a result of injury, overuse, overstretching, cooling down rapidly, improves circulation which provides for more rapid elimination of waste products and an increase in nutritive elements. This technique reduces edema and induration of tissue, stretches contracted tendons increasing the range of motion and elasticity. It also can have a sedative effect on the central nervous system and peripheral nerves.

Conditions in the horse where a favorable response to massage would be seen include contracted tendons, strains of ligaments and muscles, chronic inflammatory conditions, peripheral nerve injuries, scar tissue and chronic edema.

There are five principles which are important in massage therapy:

  1. Direction of the strokes. Generally the strokes are performed in the direction of venous blood flow, in other words, as blood flows towards the heart.
  2. Pressure of the stroke. The pressure applied should never be enough to cause pain. Factors affecting the amount of pressure applied include the muscle bulk, patient's tolerance, condition of the animal and objective (relaxation, reducing edema, etc.)
  3. Rate and rhythm . Slow rhythmic massage induces sedation, strong fast massage stimulates.
  4. Duration of massage. Obviously this is quite variable. The size of the area and condition of the patient will determine the duration. Generally 10-15 minutes is adequate.
  5. Frequency of massage. Short frequent massages are far more productive than long and infrequent sessions. In general terms daily massage is ideal however three times weekly is recommended.

There are contraindications to massage therapy. These conditions include acute inflammatory processes of the skin, soft tissue, bone and joints, fractures, sprains,circulatory disorders, presence or danger of hemorrhage, lymphangitis and tumors. For most of these conditions it is fairly obvious why massage should be avoided.

All forms of medical and surgical therapies have their limitations. Certainly neither alternative therapy nor traditional western medical management can correct a horse with colic due to a twisted bowel or induce fracture repair. There is a time and a place for all forms of therapy. From the scientific perspective, in order for these alternative therapies to play a useful and vital role, they will have to meet the standards of Western medicine and I have seen some of the alternative therapies used and have observed positive results. I think we can all benefit by combining both the advanced diagnostics available and wondrous cures seen with Western medicine aided by the techniques which utilize the body's natural healing powers.

As a word of caution, using alternative therapies that result in delay of proven medical or surgical treatment may be disastrous. Heed caution. While it is good to be open minded, it is also wise to keep your eyes open . Be cautious when your hear claims of miracle cures or secret ingredients or processes.



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