Myofascial Acupuncture for Laminitis

How does placing acupuncture needles into trigger points help a laminitic horse? As you learned in last week’s blog, acupuncture works on many different levels in the body by influencing all levels of the nervous system. The most well documented mechanisms involve pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects.

Therefore regardless of the disease condition, if pain or inflammation is involved, acupuncture is likely to help to some degree. Since laminitis, like many disease processes, involves pain and inflammation, acupuncture is an appropriate part of multi-modal treatment for laminitis.

The pain a horse feels from laminitis may come from different parts of the body. Certainly the laminitic feet hurt. And if laminitis is only in 1 foot, or even two feet, eventually the other feet compensate and may start to hurt too. Another source of pain in laminitic horses comes from muscle tension. Abnormal posture may initially relieve some of the foot pain but over time the posture itself can become a source of pain. Abnormal posture can lead to complicated patterns of musculoskeletal and neuropathic pain that includes dysfunction in joints, muscles and nerves.

Acupuncture for Laminitis - Western Dressage Blog

This horse had foot pain but he got relief when the electro-acupuncture treatment focused on myofascial tension in his front end.

In this blog I will focus on the muscle pain, also called myofascial pain. Myo means muscle. Fascia is the connective tissue surrounding muscles. Fascia is a network of fibers that forms a supportive layer around and between other structures. The superficial fascia just under the skin is important in acupuncture, as needles must pass through fascia before getting in the muscle. Since deep needling is not comfortable for most horses, superficial placement can work by affecting the fascia directly. The treatment also ends up affecting muscles by changing the tension in and around trigger points.

Myofascial trigger points are abnormal areas of muscle that are stuck in a chronic contractile state. You have seen laminitic horses with altered posture. When horses stand or walk with abnormal tension patterns they develop muscle “knots.” You can sometimes palpate them in the neck, shoulders and over the topline and hind end. These areas of muscle undergo an energy crisis so they cannot relax. It takes energy to relax a muscle, and the acupuncture needle placed in (or even just near) this area of abnormal muscle can normalize muscle physiology allowing it to relax.

Western Dressage Blog - Acupuncture for Laminitis

This horse had shoulder pain and needles were placed in the front end but also placed in hind end
where he had the most detectable myofascial trigger points.

To understand something about myofascial trigger points, think for a moment about what happens to muscle tissue after death. It develops rigor mortis because the dead body no longer has energy to relax. A myofascial trigger point is not “dead” muscle but it is in a state of ill-health and does not have enough energy to function normally. So when a needle is advanced into this tissue, the micro damage stimulates a local immune response. Fresh blood delivers needed nutrients and the muscle tissue can normalize or at least move towards normal. There is more to the mechanisms of trigger point acupuncture, including what happens within the spinal cord segments that innervate the tight muscle as well as what happens in the brain that ultimately results in improved muscle tone. But the blood flow changes to local area around the needle are one part of the mechanism that is easy for people to understand. Even if you have never had acupuncture you know just from experiencing a bug bite to your skin that the local immune response to injury involves changes in blood flow; the same process happens when your horse gets acupuncture to treat the myofascial pain of laminitis.

In some patients the needles alone are not enough to relieve pain but these horses may respond well to electrical stimulation. Running electricity through the needles enhances the horse’s natural pain relieving mechanisms including the release of morphine-like compounds.


Western Dressage Blog

Photo credit to Allen Landes, DVM

This photo shows a close-up of electro-acupuncture treatment in the lumber spinal muscles.

There are also needle treatments that more directly affect foot pain and I will begin to address that next week. I started the acupuncture blog series with myofascial acupuncture for laminitis because I have found it to be the most important component of treatment for chronic laminitis patients.


Copyright © 2012 ~ Dr. Lisa Lancaster DVM, WDAA Blog Author



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