Back Pain Prison

The right therapies can make a big difference.
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The right therapies can make a big difference.

Back pain is a chronic problem that waxes and wanes. It has a plethora of causes and myriad treatments. But, with a combination of pharmaceuticals, physical therapies, and management changes, you can help your horse.

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Pharmaceuticals: When the body is damaged, it produces inflammation to protect itself. The resulting pain signals the body that there is a problem. It rushes blood to the area, promoting healing, and it reduces further damage by limiting the range of motion. It also cranks up the pain stimulus when the injured area is pushed to its limit. But inflammation has deleterious effects on the body as well, so your battle against back pain will usually include a drug, given at timely doses.

Physical Therapies:As effective as drugs are for acute problems, nearly all have long-term side effects. Sure, they’ll probably be needed from time-to-time during acute flare-ups, but on an ongoing basis, we use physical therapies to complement our medications.

Management:Simple management practices go a long way toward treatment and prevention.

Straighten up and Fly Right. Despite a solid treatment plan, for many horses, the physical effects of back pain may linger. To avoid pain, horses will often undergo physical asymmetries and postural changes that can further predispose them to back pain on an ongoing basis. These imbalances can be difficult to correct.

If a body has suffered from chronic spinal misalignment, it can take months to years to get it corrected. Basically, the longer that a horse has suffered from back pain, the longer it will take to rebalance his body and correct his posture after the pain has been addressed.Over time, the body can “memorize” the poor posture, making it difficult to correct.

How long does a bone have to be out of place before the body begins to memorize its new position? That's a question that veterinarians and chiropractors constantly wrestle with. Most of the time, if bone misalignment can be addressed within days of occurrence, the body can keep the problem corrected.But, if weeks to months are allowed to pass before the issue is addressed, the soft connective tissues surrounding the bone and the muscles begin to contract to the new position.

Think about it this way: When we sit, stand or even walk, rarely are we conscious of the way that we do so.Yet, if we try to consciously sit up straight, hold our shoulders back, keep our chin up, . . .well, it can be darn hard to do!After a minute or two, we’re usually right back to where we started.Horses, of course, have no concept of the “dos and don’ts” of posture, so changing their posture can be even more tedious.To help, try to:

  • Get the horse fit. Good muscle resiliency supports joints and tendon/ligament elasticity and improves the horse's range of motion and flexibility.
  • Use caution with postural assistance devices. These systems can harm a horse if not used under the proper circumstances.If a horse is painful or injured, some devices can exacerbate the problem. And, if the operator isn't experienced or overuses them, the horse can suffer.Make sure that you really have done your homework and know that the system is appropriate for your horse and his condition.
  • Veterinarians, vets with acupuncture certification, farriers, chiropractors and massage therapists have specialized training and a breadth of experience in this subject matter and can lend a hand in the project.

Bottom Line. Back pain is a dynamic issue in people and horses. It can range from pesky minor soreness to debilitating pain. Address the issue by finding the cause(s)—as discussed last month—and assigning appropriate therapy to eliminate pain. After that, manage the horse to minimize or prevent future occurrences. See chart of therapies.

Postural corrections can take a long time, and relapses of back pain are common. Be patient. Knowing your horse’s triggers and fine tuning your approach to dealing with back pain when it flares will keep you in the saddle in the long run.

Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Grant Miller, DVM