What is joint disease?
Wednesday 23 May 2012
Have you ever wondered what joint disease in horses actually is, how it occurs and how it can be treated? Here, Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist Kirsty Haines tells us what we need to know about joint disease.
Joint disease in horses
I often get calls from owners whose horses have been diagnosed with a hind-limb issue. Sometimes, I see a problem and initiate the owner’s contact with the vet to do a work-up. Either way, a common problem I see is a hock (tarsal) joint osteoarthritis. It basically means the joint is suffering from wear and tear. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Now there’s the million dollar question.
Joint disease in horses occurs either from abnormal forces on normal tissues or normal forces on abnormal tissues. The first one could be due to a highly competitive career where regular stresses above and beyond the norm have been placed on the joint. The second could mean that conformational issues or poor foot balance have, over time, meant that the joint surfaces have not been loaded correctly or symmetrically resulting in increased wear and tear in a particular area. Common signs such as extra bone formation, reduced or stickier joint fluid and general joint swelling may or may not be present.
The next step is what to do about joint disease in horses. Well, physiotherapy is not a cure-all and while we do have techniques such as joint mobilisations, ultrasound, laser, and exercise therapy that can bring a profound change in the horse’s condition, we cannot cure the underlying process. In combination with veterinary medicines and management, however, we can look to manage the condition holistically.
Looking at the horse’s muscle mass, it’s almost inevitable that a period of joint pain and subsequent off-loading has taken its toll. Generally speaking, I would expect to see a reduction in the muscle mass on the affected (or worst affected) side. The hamstrings down the back of the leg may be underdeveloped, and the opposite leg overdeveloped, and the major stabilising muscle, biceps femoris, which is a huge muscle sitting between hip and stifle, is generally weakened and less developed. Now this muscle is vital for keeping the horse upright and stable when challenged, for example on a circle or when lunged. Any weakness will be apparent in the horse’s way of going. And as this muscle has send off shoots like a tree to the stifle and hock, its action in the hindlimb is far reaching and not one you’d want compromised.
The good news is that once muscle imbalance is recognised and addressed alongside pain management, joint restriction, remedial farriery and any veterinary treatment of the joint, in most cases of joint disease in horses, the horse can be returned to work at some level. The horse reduces the amount of off loading, begins to use the muscles correctly to support the joints and ultimately can continue in ridden work.
Kirsty Haines MSc MCSP ACPAT Cat A is a Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist practicing at Westfield Veterinary Physiotherapy, Tel: 0774 8788564, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by cartese
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