Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) is one of the cornerstones of treatment in our referral hospital setting, and I wholeheartedly believe that it is an integral part of an all-embracing approach to therapy. I have observed its remarkable benefits countless times, especially in our surgery, oncology and aging internal medicine patients. I am frequently asked about the overall concept of holistic medicine, and I hope this post will help answer questions regarding this fascinating and emerging area of veterinary medicine, including how these practices can augment a Western approach.
What Is Alternative Medicine?
First, let's begin with Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is a term which is an umbrella for a restorative approach to medicine that includes Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, massage, homeopathy and essential oils.
TCVM aims to diagnose and treat animals as a whole, rather than focusing on individual organ systems, as with Western medicine. The basic concept is the belief that illness can develop when the body is out of balance. Ultimately, the goal of TCVM is to put the body back into its natural equilibrium, as a way to help to treat and rid the body of disease. This can be achieved with a combination of acupuncture, herbs, nutrition and massage.
Acupuncture is the stimulation of a specific point on the body (acupoint), resulting in a “balancing” effect. Acupuncture has been practiced in both animals and humans for thousands of years in China. The ancient Chinese practitioners have discovered 361 acupoints in humans and 173 acupoints in animals! Stimulation of these acupoints induces the release of natural chemicals such as beta-endorphins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. These chemicals, in turn, have positive effects on pain control and can generate the feeling of general well-being.
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All those needles! Does it hurt?
Acupuncture treatments can cause the sensation of pressure, tingling or aching. For most animals, placing the acupuncture needles is painless. Some animals occasionally feel the initial insertion of the needle, but once in place, there is no pain. In fact, many animals become relaxed and some even fall asleep. This is a desired response and is a representation of Qi (energy) in the body. Acupuncture needles are sterile, single-use needles that are very fine and are not expected to cause discomfort.
How many treatments are needed?
The number of treatments depends on the nature, severity and duration of the disease. One or two treatments may be enough for a suddenly developed condition, whereas chronic conditions will often require 3 to 6 treatments to obtain results. Some degenerative conditions may need monthly treatments over time. Treatments may be given once a week to once every few months, depending on the specific problem. Each treatment can take 20 to 60 minutes, and an average of 10 to 20 acupuncture needles are typically used.
What are Chinese herbs and are they safe?
Chinese herbal therapy is another method of treatment in TCVM, and can be safely used in conjunction with other Western medications. The use of Chinese herbs in conjunction with other modalities (acupuncture and food therapy) can be a very useful and safe method to treat illnesses. Whereas acupuncture affects the movement of Qi, Chinese herbs improve the quality of Qi. This treatment combination can be very effective in bringing the body back to a balanced state. The individual herbs are often derived from portions of plants (root, bark, flower, seed), but they can also be mineral- (such as shell) or animal- (such as earthworm) based.
When is acupuncture indicated?
Acupuncture therapy can be effective with many medical conditions including:
- Musculoskeletal problems: arthritis, muscle soreness, back problems and degenerative joint disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders: diarrhea, vomiting and constipation
- Neurological disorders: seizures and weakness of limbs
- Chronic conditions: asthma, kidney disease, liver disease, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, skin disease, allergies and heart disease
- Cancers and immune-mediated diseases: Benefits include improvement in the immune system, decreased symptoms of cancer (loss of appetite, pain, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness), alleviation of side effects of chemotherapy, and primary therapy for the cancer itself.
- Following surgery: Surgery is considered an “acute trauma” and acupuncture is wonderful at treating associated pain and inflammation.
The marriage of Eastern and Western medicine reflects advancement in care, and I am truly excited to be practicing medicine in a time when so much can be done for our pets to help improve their quality of life! Feel free to post any questions, comments or just share with us your personal experiences with holistic care.