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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an independent system of thought and practice based on ancient texts, critical thinking and clinical observation. Balancing ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ is the main concept behind it.

Acupuncture is one of the waysto re-address these imbalances.

The acupuncture points lie in 361 traditional meridians (channels connecting related nerves). When stimulated, each point has specific actions, relating to the internal organ with which it is associated.

Acupuncture tends to be used mainly on competition horses. Most of the complaints are back and neck problems, which lead to restrictions in movements such as shoulder-in, as well as the failure to bend and flex correctly.Racehorses also benefit from acupuncture, and are frequently treated for temperament problems.

Acupuncture can be useful, either alone or in conjunction with western medicine, in the treatment of most gait abnormalities, such as the inability to turn, stiffness on one rein, changing legs at canter, bucking and dragging hind limbs and changes in temperament.

Diseases that may respond to acupuncture include chronic catarrh, conjunctivitis, colitis, diarrhoea and liver and lung problems.

Practitioners often find themselves called in for non-specific conditions where an injury cannot be located.

Vets will start by treating the spine, which is well supplied with nerves. Acupuncture releases endorphins, which promote well-being and has a calming, uplifting effect so, even on a horse with no specific injury, the treatment can make it happier and more relaxed.

In these cases, there is a theory that the problem is caused by a memory cell left in the brain from an old injury. The horse feels pain, even though the medical problem has been healed, and a course of acupuncture may wipe the memory clean. Results depend on the extent and severity of the condition and the animal¡s individual response to acupuncture.

The treatments can make a difference after a few sessions, but vets often treat horses weekly at first – at least three sessions are needed to see if there is any positive response.

If the condition has improved by then, the practitioner will treat the horse less regularly until it shows improvement, and then return for treatments when necessary. The process of acupuncture is painless. However, mild sedatives are often given to make the horse stand still, which avoids the problem of broken or twisted needles.

There are different approaches to acupuncture, the traditional way being the insertion of needles at certain pressure points using the theories of yin and yang, Chi (vital energy) and the meridian network.

Trigger point acupuncture is based on identifying tender spots by palpation and other criteria, such as the horse flinching when the trigger point is pressed or a muscle twitching when pressure is applied to it.

Other methods include the application of a thermal stimulus using Moxa, a dried plant fibre and, in the west, injection techniques are sometimes used to treat musculo-skeletal disease.

Laser therapy has received much attention in recent years. There are obvious attractions in using lasers in that it is painless and there is no risk of infection. However, equipment is expensive, and clinical trials have produced mixed results.

The laser light used in this kind of therapy stimulates the cells in a specific area to divide, thus helping a wound to heal faster.

Electro-acupuncture is used more frequently for chronic pain and appears to have benefits that outlast the temporary analgesic effect. The stimulators used in this kind of treatment tell the practitioner the intensity of the endorphins being produced, which means that they can stimulate the area to maximum effect without hurting the horse. Electro-acupuncture is generally used on more specific, serious tissue damage.