1 of 2
2 of 2
When I answered the phone, a strong but shaking voice asked if I would come right away.
“The vet’s recommending that I put him down. Is there anything you can do, uh, with acupuncture? Can you use acupuncture in an emergency? Please help!”
The little Hanoverian colt had reared and slipped, toppling over backwards and crashing onto the left side of his head and neck on the hard-packed ground.
As I walked into his stall, I saw a depressed little foal where brilliance and attitude once radiated. He was unable to bend to nurse from his dam, and his neck had a large, painful bulge near his skull on the left side. More significantly, his face was asymmetrical. While the right side was completely normal, the left lip drooped, his ear flopped low, his nose was pulled to the right, and his left eyelids wouldn’t close. He also struggled to breathe through his left nostril. This little colt had complete left-side facial paralysis.
Radiographs had been taken, and no fractures were initially noted. I questioned this information, as a sickening bone-on-bone grinding and clunking emitted from the colt’s neck every time he moved his head. I requested repeat images with a radiology consult. His owner looked at me pleadingly and asked if a cupuncture might help her little colt, now just three months old.
The risks involved in working with a 12-week-old colt, unused to major handling or needles, with a likely high neck fracture, made me hesitate. I counseled the owner about a plan: breathe deeply, await the results of the new radiographs, and reassess.
As expected, the radiology report described a fracture of the left wing of the atlas, with a non-displaced fracture of the dens (the protuberance of the second neck bone that sits in the first). Spinal cord compression was apparent. The colt was not responding to anti-inflammatories. A second veterinarian again suggested euthanasia due to quality of life concerns, and the colt’s apparent blindness.
HOPELESS? I THINK NOT!
The colt’s owner was looking for options and wasn’t ready to give up. I discussed with her the need for the fracture to be healed before we did any major work – any quick jerking or pulling reaction, pressure from a halter, or head-tossing, could be disastrous when dealing with a fracture over the spinal cord. I did a full neurological examination, and found that, contrary to prior notation, the colt was NOT blind. He had an intact menace response and could retract his eyeball into the socket for protection, though he was unable to close his eyelids. This gave me clues about which nerves were affected.
We used an artificial tears product to keep his eye lubricated, and he was bucket fed around the clock by dutiful working students who milked the mare. T he colt seemed to rally initially, but then became more agitated and depressed.
At this time, roughly 3 weeks after his accident, his owner and I agreed to proceed with treatment, accepting that the benefit would outweigh the risks, but that we would wait until 6 weeks post-injury for very aggressive treatment. Tongue and pulse diagnosis confirmed our TCVM diagnosis: excess heat pattern with focal Qi and blood stagnation.
The colt stood beautifully for his first few treatments. I chose local treatment points around the eyelids, nose, lip, atlas and neck, as well as “master” points for the head, face, and neck. Small ½” to 1” stainless steel needles were inserted carefully. For the first few treatments, only a few points were used, but as we proceeded, electroacupuncture was added to stimulate the nerves, decrease pain, and improve circulation. I was thrilled to see that I could artificially stimulate the eyelids to blink with electrical current, and the ear would twitch – evidence that there was SOME nervous system function present.
The colt was treated 1-2 times weekly for 4 weeks, each time regaining some function. During his turnout time with his dam, a fly mask protected his eyes from insects and the bright sun. After 6 treatments (8 weeks post-injury) I watched in disbelief as he blinked on his own – twice! And the next week he was able to breathe through an open left nostril and his ear stood up properly!
ALMOST THERE, BUT NOT QUITE...
As his healing progressed, he was weaned and turned out with his siblings. The largest obstacle we now encountered was a red, fleshy granuloma that formed in his mouth on his lower gingiva. Because he was unable to use his lip correctly, his lower jaw scraped across the ground, irritating the tissues and creating an angry, red, fleshy mass. I aggressively treated his lower left lip with electroacupuncture, but was still not getting the final resolution I’d hoped for. The colt was now 90% healed after 10 treatments, but needed a full recovery. Chinese herbal medicine was the final ingredient.
Dr. Huisheng Xie, of the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, Florida directed me to use Facial P™ and Bu Yang Huan Wu™ Chinese herbal medicine twice daily added to feed for 30 days. Within 7 short days of administration, the colt had complete, 100% function of his previously paralyzed face.
Prognosis in many veterinary textbooks for horses with facial paralysis is bleak, offering only “Tincture of Time” as a healing approach. Many references quote that facial paralysis may resolve itself in 1-10 days; a poor prognosis is given for animals with dysfunction lasting longer than 2 weeks. No Western veterinary text cites acupuncture as a possible therapy for facial paralysis.
Acupuncture is often sought as a last resort treatment, but its success in reducing or eliminating pain, modifying circulation, and stimulating the nervous system supports its use as a primary therapy. Though I have treated countless horses with acupuncture, this case will always be my most inspirational. In the face of two veterinarians recommending euthanasia, and failure of Western medicine to provide either optimism or treatment, Traditional Chinese Acupuncture gave the owner both hope and a resolution, and her colt regained a chance at a full and successful life.
Acupuncture is effective in treating acute and chronic pain, and musculoskeletal trauma and disease. Acupuncture needles stimulate the body’s endorphins (Mother Nature’s morphine), regulate circulation, and modulate the nervous system and immunity. From an Eastern view, acupuncture needles also help the flow of Qi, (pronounced “Chee”), which is the body’s life-force or energy. Pain, swelling, trauma, chronic injury, etc., cause stagnation or blockage of this flow; acupuncture helps release the stagnation.
Dr. Joanna Robson is the owner of Inspiritus Equine Inc. and the founder of Integrated Soundness SolutionsTM. Her book, “Recognizing the Horse in Pain and What You Can Do About It” was published in September 2009. www.recognizingthehorseinpain.com , www.inspiritusequine.com