Ask the Vet: Acupuncture for Dogs With Disc Disease

Dr. Ivana Crnec

Acupuncture for dogs with disc disease is something that can be quite appealing for owners of dogs suffering from the severe pain associated with this debilitating condition. While acupuncture in the past used to be mostly used in humans, nowadays, more and more vets are suggesting this type of treatment.

Acupuncture for dogs with disc diseases has become more and more popular. Many vets are specializing in acupuncture and offering this service to dogs who need it. Dogs with disc disease often suffer a lot of the pain and stiffness associated with herniated discs and acupuncture can provide relief without any major side effects. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana shares her insights into this procedure. 

A Lesson in Anatomy

An intervertebral disk is a pad of cartilage that sits between the vertebrae and acts as a cushion and shock absorber. It consists of an outer capsule of fibrous connective tissue surrounding a gel-like core. 

When a disk ruptures, the fibrous capsule breaks, allowing the core tissue to spill out of the disk. Once escaped the inner disk, tissue exerts pressure on the spinal cord and the pressure is likely to cause pain and loss of muscle function.

The Effect of Intravertebral  Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs 

As mentioned, the intervertebral disks lie just beneath the spinal cord. Injury or wear can cause a disk to degenerate or rupture, compressing the surrounding tissues.

 In the rupture, the fibrous coating of a disk tears and the inner material escapes. In some larger dogs, the fibrous capsule may remain healthy but the disk suddenly or gradually slips and bulges upward.

Sudden rupture or displacement of a disk results in pain and often loss of muscle function, which may or may not symmetrically affect both sides of the body. If a displaced disk presses on the spinal cord, there may be complete paralysis beyond the site of damage.

Based on the location of the ruptured disk, there are several forms of IVDD:

 Cervical – if the ruptured disk is in the neck

Thoraco-lumbar – if the ruptured disk is at the back’s middle

 Lumbosacral – if the ruptured disk is in the lower back.

IVDD Breed Predispositions 

IVDD is more likely to occur in chondrodystrophic dog breeds (dogs that have long backs and short legs) such as the Dachshund, the Basset Hound, the Shih Tzu, the Pekingese and the American Cocker Spaniel. 

This is because these dogs’ anatomy causes the spine to flex and puts stress on the disks. Disk disease is much less common in dogs that have a more upright, wolf-like build.

 However, certain non-chondrodystrophic dog breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Dalmatians, Doberman and German Shepherds are predisposed to IVD. 

IVDD Conventional Treatment for Dogs 

Treatment for IVDD in dogs typically encompasses the use medications and possible surgery for cases that don't respond to medications and rest. 

Corticosteroid drugs are beneficial, for most dogs, when given on the same day that injury occurs. After medication, the most important component of treatment is rest, usually for about two weeks, to allow the disk to return to its normal position.

For older, large dogs suffering from chronic bulging disks, continued corticosteroids or analgesics relieve the pain, but do not lessen the chance of recurrence. While rest is vital, the priority is to prevent the recurrence of disk disease. This may be achieved only through surgical intervention. 

Acupuncture for Dogs With Disc Disease

Although there are conventional treatment approaches, more and more vets are increasingly recommending acupuncture for dogs with intervertebral disease. Studies in the area seem promising, and in practice, many IVDD dogs enjoy the benefits of acupuncture as a holistic pain therapy. 

Acupuncture is thought to work by stimulating the body to release endorphins which are natural painkillers and prostaglandin-suppressing cortisone which reduces pain and inflammation.

 Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the World Health Organization recognize acupuncture as an efficient treatment for joint-related pain. 

Veterinary acupuncturists say that, the more chronic the pain, the more treatments may be necessary before pain relief is observed.

The Importance of Caution

When initiating acupuncture treatment for dogs with disc disease, the most important thing is making sure the dog is properly diagnosed.

 This is because acupuncture is strong enough and capable of masking and altering the symptoms thus making the future diagnosis not just more difficult but also delayed.

Another thought worth considering is the fact that acupuncture may relieve the pain so much that the dog would feel encouraged to be physically active when it should be resting. Being overly active in times when cage rest is highly advisable, delays and prolongs the healing process.

Studies on Acupuncture to Treat Cervical Disc Disease

In addition to being particularly painful, cervical disk disease prevents the dog from eating, moving and even sleeping properly.

A study conducted by Dr. Luc A. Janssens showed that acupuncture treatment has more positive outcomes than surgical treatment. During his research, the doctor performed acupuncture on 35 dogs – some of them having already been treated with conventional therapies, but with not satisfactory results. 

At the end of the study, 69 percent of the treated dogs reached full recovery, 28 percent of the dogs recovered within a week and 9 percent after only two days of initiating acupuncture. The average recovery time for all dogs was two weeks.

Based on his research, Dr. Janssens recommends waiting for favorable results for no more than 2 to 3 weeks. If within this timeframe there are no visibly positive outcomes, he advises stopping the acupuncture and focusing on surgical approach. This recommendation applies particularly to dogs with a recurrences history.

Studies on Acupuncture to Treat Thoracolumbar Disk Disease 

In addition to impairing the dog’s walking, thoracolumbar disk disease often causes loss of pain sensation and neurological deficits in the forms of uncontrolled urination and defecation. 

The prognosis for dogs with thoracolumbar disk disease is proportionally dependent with the severity of the neurological signs.

To assess the role of acupuncture for dogs with thoracolumbar disk disease, Dr. Janssens performed another study. He started by dividing the patients in several groups based on the severity of the clinical manifestation:

Group 1: dogs with back pain but without neurological signs

Group 2: dogs with back pain and partial paralysis

 Group 3: dogs capable of feeling pain but incapable of standing and walking

 Group 4: dogs with loss of pain sensation and paralysis of the legs and lower body.

Each dog received an average of 3.6 acupuncture treatments. Eighty-five percent of the treated dogs made full recoveries. About 63 percent of the recovered dogs had already been treated with steroids, but without success. 

Based on the study’s results, Dr. Janssens concluded that acupuncture helps relieve pain in dogs from the first three classification groups.

Conclusion

Acupuncture is beneficial for many dogs when the pain is moderate or chronic. It is of no value for dogs with serious spinal compression. 

Remember: the objective of any treatment is to reduce mental as well as physical stress and create the best environment for the body’s natural power of repair to take effect. 

Dogs that are distressed by needles, strangers, car trips and so on, will not benefit from acupuncture if they find the procedure itself stressful. The likelihood of distress depends on the personality of the individual. 

About The Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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