Acupuncture and My High Horse

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I was skeptical about acupuncture for most of my life. I’d never had a serious injury or illness, and therefore hadn’t experienced the shortcomings of western medicine firsthand. Somehow acupuncture was something I considered quackery, matter-of-factly filed away in my mind along with chiropractic and reflexology and homeopathy.

My reluctance to accept it as legitimate therapy seems so foolish now, after what happened with Mikey. Mikey made me a believer.

Mikey was young and had a bit of a wild streak, but was sweet natured and treated people kindly – until he had an serious injury that totally screwed up his lifestyle. After the injury, Mikey couldn’t work at his job any more, and his personality changed completely –  he became short-tempered, anxious, angry, and aggressive.  In short, he turned into a real jackass.

I suppose I should clarify that Mikey was a horse – my horse.

PHOTO: Jim Snowden

My traditional western medicine veterinarian prescribed pain medication for Mikey’s knee injury, and also recommended confining him to a 12×12 foot stall while he recuperated. Mikey was decidedly displeased with his confinement – he suddenly had no outlet for his energy, as he couldn’t be ridden and couldn’t socialize in a field with his horsey friends. My sweet, gentle horse turned into a nasty monster, 1200 pounds of pent-up displeasure that turned to aggression: biting, kicking, and generally miserable. I dreaded handling him, yet I was very reluctant about trying the anti-psychotic pharmaceutical drugs often prescribed to horses on long term medical confinement.

When I asked my vet about ways to speed up Mikey’s recovery, he suggested trying acupuncture. I balked – it seemed like a lot of money to spend on a questionable treatment, but I figured it was worth a shot.

Walking Mikey from his little medical jail cell to his first acupuncture treatment in an adjacent barn was a challenge in itself. He yanked and jerked at the end of his lead rope, dancing around me and threatening with bared teeth. I was concerned for the safety of the acupuncturist – a DVM with an interest in alternative medicine, who looked, dressed, and spoke a lot like Timothy Leary – a huge contrast with my buttoned-up, conservative, western vet.

I kept an open mind while “Dr. Leary” examined Mikey, inwardly rolling my eyes when he informed me that Mikey’s chi was blocked in his knee area. Waste of money, I thought. This isn’t going to do anything but make me $100 poorer.

Mikey danced around the wash-stall where he was cross-tied, showing the whites of his eyes and pinning back his ears, an expression of pain, anxiety, and aggression. But in an instant, that changed, in the moments that the good doctor stuck needles around Mikey’s knee, his shoulder, his back. Suddenly, Mikey stopped dancing around. His eyes grew soft. His ears flopped lazily. He let out a huge, expressive sigh. Even someone not familiar with the language of horses could not have missed what was happening for Mikey: relief, and total, absolute bliss. And in that instant, my preconceived assumptions evaporated entirely and I found myself suddenly and profoundly changed: I was a true believer in the power of acupuncture.

Little needles, big power.

Little needles, big power.

Interestingly, Mikey’s knee didn’t improve a whit from the treatment. But what changed 100% was his attitude. He was back to being the kind, gentle, sweet soul he’d been before his injury. He was still limping, but something profound had clearly happened. As grateful as I was that Mikey was a much happier horse, I struggled to understand what exactly was happening, and why he clearly felt such relief. Even though we hadn’t given him any medication, it seemed to me like Mikey was on some feel-good, blissed-out, happy trip…And in fact, recent scientific studies confirm that this is exactly what was going on in my horse’s body.

Researchers in China have recently shown that acupuncture works in pretty much the same way as marijuana.

Like humans and all other mammals, horses have an endocannabinoid system. In simple terms, “cannabinoid receptors” (known as CB1 and CB2) in living beings help to control a wide array of different bodily functions, including pain relief and mood. When marijuana binds to cannabinoid receptors, it can produce the effects of pain relief, and mood enhancement – the “high” of THC. Likewise, endocannabinoids – in other words, cannabinoids produced naturally within the body – can have similar effects without the use of marijuana or any other substances. Anandamide was the first endocannabinoid identified by scientists. It was initially isolated and described by a research team led by Raphael Mechoulam in the early 1990’s, and its name, derived from the Sanskrit word for “bliss” or “delight,” aptly describes one of Anandamide’s many properties.

In short, acupuncture causes the body to produce create its own cannabinoids that bind to cannabinoid receptors and create pain relief – and quite often, a noticeable “high” that has now been confirmed by scientific research.

In the past few years, published medical studies have revealed that the effects of acupuncture are a whole lot like the effects of marijuana. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Pain describes the measurably increased production of Anandamide in rats receiving electroacupuncture. In 2012, a study published in the European Journal of Pain explored acupuncture’s activation of CB2 receptors, a process not unlike the effects of using marijuana. And in 2013, researchers in China conducted a study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine that details the synergistic interaction of CB1 and dopamine systems in acupuncture treatment.

This new information about acupuncture’s affect on the endocannabinoid system explains what Mikey was feeling: a powerful, natural high that scientifically speaking is a whole lot like getting high on good weed.

I didn’t know any of this when I got Mikey his acupuncture treatments. But I did know that it seemed to make him feel a lot better, so after I had a serious injury in a car accident, I decided I’d give it a try myself.

I was a little anxious – I really didn’t like the thought of being poked with needles, especially in areas that were already painful, and despite what I’d seen happen with Mikey, a little part of me resurfaced, a part of me that thought of it as woo-woo, mumbo jumbo snake oil weirdness.

Regardless of my skepticism, something magical happened at my first acupuncture treatment. As soon as the needles went in, my anxiety went out, and I fell into a blissful, trance-like state. When the treatment was over, I felt like I was, well, totally high for lack of a better description. In fact, I felt so high that I didn’t even think it was safe for me to drive my car right away, so I sat in the acupuncturist’s waiting room for almost an hour after my treatment until I felt a little more grounded. After I finally felt like I could leave, I remember sitting in my car and thinking, what the hell just happened here?

I also remember thinking how incredibly awesome it was and that I couldn’t wait to experience it again.