Using acupuncture to manage severe pain in horses and other animals is not a novel concept, but veterinarians have been hard at work lately combing research studies to better understand this complementary therapy’s usefulness, efficacy, and safety. During a presentation at the 2011 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 18-22 in San Antonio, Texas, James Kenney, DVM, an equine practitioner from Clarksburg, N.J., presented an overview of acupuncture and equine pain.

"According to the World Health Organization, the effectiveness of acupuncture has been established in controlled clinical trials (in humans), and the use of acupuncture to control chronic pain is comparable with morphine without the risk of drug dependence and other adverse side effects," Kenney explained.

After an in-depth discussion of the physiologic mechanisms behind acupuncture and pain control, Kenney discussed clinical research on the use of acupuncture in animals.

"Currently, much of the practice of acupuncture in animals is based on the results of pilot research studies, case reports, and clinical experiences," he explained. "Compared with human acupuncture, the clinical application of veterinary acupuncture is in the early stages of development as a science."

Based on the findings of a 2006 systematic research review, he noted, there’s "no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals." Clinical trials are still yielding a mixed bag of results for acupuncture’s efficacy for treating a variety of ailments in horses: