Ask the Vet: Alternative Therapies

Question: I am an equine sports massage therapist, I get called on to massage horses rehabbing from injuries not just helping to keep them working well for their jobs.

What benefits have you seen from adding in professional equine massage therapy as an adjunctive therapy for horses in rehab?

Answer: The use of massage therapy has been a common practice in human and equine sports therapy for quite a long time. This modality of therapy is practiced with multiple different techniques or “schools” of practice. There are schools which offer certification, but most states don’t license equine massage therapists and it is to be managed under veterinary guidance.

The application of massage therapy is used to identify and treat soft tissue pain in the body. Through manual palpation and pressure, areas of pain, tightness, and diminished circulation can be identified and massaged. The manual strength of the practitioner is needed to apply the therapy to deeper tissues, so this modality can put a lot of pressure on the masseuse.

There have been quite a few studies done to evaluate the benefits of massage therapy. It has been looked at as a method to diminish injury as a pre exercise treatment or to improve time of healing as a post injury treatment. Unfortunately, few studies have shown significant benefit in either category. However, massage therapy has been shown to provide a short term improvement in discomfort and improved performance immediately following treatment.

If the massage therapist is used as part of the therapeutic team with the veterinarian, farrier, trainer and rider, they can provide additional information to how the body is responding to work and conditioning; and whether there are new or chronic areas of discomfort. The modality can be utilized to improve how the horse feels and performs, and improve its outlook towards work as a consequence. Hopefully, both rider and horse can enjoy a good rub down before their next show.  Chris Newton, DVM, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, Lexington, Ky.

Question: I have a horse that is 9 months out from surgery to repair a broken shoulder. What is the best way to help his damaged nerves to recover?

Answer: Theoretically, damaged nerves do not recover. In practice though, we often see the damaged nerve function return over time to some extent. It would depend on how much damage and where. If there are smaller collateral nerves that could compensate the deficiency, and the other dated tissues scarring and healing. Sometimes the nerve damage is not extensive but the muscles and ligaments around it are scarred and the limb may not function properly regardless, making it look like nerve damage.

The idea is to strengthen the supporting tissues to compensate for the nerve deficiency, and maintain the limb functionality. If any nerve tissue heals, it would take over three (3) months. In the meantime, the muscles and supporting tissues will atrophy if not properly exercised.

Passive range of motion exercises early on are crucial to muscle fitness. Once able to bear some weight, under water treadmill provides buoyancy and resistance to improve muscle, tendon and ligament strength without much impact. TENS has limited range but can also be used, as well as PEMF devices.

Acupuncture is excellent for long-term balancing both the damaged area as well as the contralateral limb compensation. It is thought to be able to help the body regenerate nervous tissues and decrease scarring. It should be started very early on, once swelling goes down even if there’s still fractured bone as it will help it heal faster.

Bear in mind that most of these modalities have not been extensively researched for use in horses or for the specific needs of your horse and you should first consult your veterinarian about what is the best procedure in your case and have him/her accompanying the progress often.

Silvia Do Valle, DVM, Orlando, Fla.