An electromagnetic blanket appears to help reduce back pain in sport horses while improving neuromotor control and spinal flexibility—without negative side effects such as inflammation or stiffness, according to researchers on a recent study.
The emerging technology “provides the equine practitioner with a medication-free bio-solution” for reducing pain in the croup and saddle area and is, thus, “absolutely” recommended in such cases, said Melissa King, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, assistant professor in Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, in Fort Collins.
The Problem With Back Pain
Ridden horses frequently have back pain, which might be due to poor saddle fit, weak abdominal muscles, hypertonic back muscles, lameness, bone disease, or other causes, King said. But despite the prevalenceof back pain, its cause is difficult to accurately diagnose in horses, she added, and equally challenging to treat.
Given its success in human medicine, an electromagnetic blanket could be an effective therapeutic solution, King said. Using electrical currents driven through coiled wires to create a magnetic field, the “bio-electromagnetic energy regulation” (BEMER) blanket uses a low-frequency to generate a therapeutic current within the tissues of the horse’s back without producing heat.
Testing Real-World Sport Horses
King and her fellow researchers placed a BEMER blanket (flux density 35-microTesla) over the back and croup of eight horses of various breeds and western disciplines twice a day for five, 10, and 15 minutes per session, for three days in a row. The four geldings and four mares, aged 4 to 10 years, were worked four to five days per week until the start of the study. Horses were enrolled in the study based on clinical signs of back pain and stiffness. They were kept on stall rest for the full study period. No horse had a greater than Grade 1 (out of 5) lameness.
Over the three treatment days, plus the days before and after, the team evaluated the horses’ tolerance to pressure at 19 predetermined points across their backs. They used a rubber-tipped gradual pressure gauge and removed it as soon as the horse moved away, twitched its skin, or contracted its muscles. Inertial sensor were used to track ground reaction forces, and muscle isoenzyme measurements were taken to compare levels before and after use of the BEMER.
Reduced Back Pain and More
King and her research associates found that pressure thresholds were significantly higher- suggesting less pain- over both bone and muscle each day after treatment as well as 24 hours after the last treatment, compared to baseline, she said.
The horses were also more supple, showing notable improvements in spinal motion and flexibility during a series of “challenging” range-of-motion exercises, with clear therapeutic advantages, said King.
“A flexible spine provides pain-free range of motion, enhances neuromotor control, and effectively improves strength gains in muscle,” she and her fellow researchers recently reported in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. “Although the exact mechanism of action for improvements in spinal motion is not fully understood, the potential improvements in microcirculation may have increased tissue perfusion and oxygenation, thereby decreasing muscle spasms, hypertonicity, and pain.”
Blanket therapy also appeared to enhance proprioception (the body’s unconscious perception of position and movement)- and, consequently, postural control as measured while standing on force plates, she said.
Additionally, treated horses held their heads lower by the third day of treatment, when sessions lasted a full 15 minutes, suggesting the horses were more relaxed, King said.
Meanwhile, the researchers found no significant changes regarding ground reaction forces and inertial sensor data—which are “ideal responses,” she added.
“The fact that those outcomes were not significantly influenced by BEMER therapy applied to the back is, in a way, a good thing in that there was no negative response to limb loading or timing of limb movement,” she said. “Similarly, with the muscle isoenzymes, the lack of significant results is good in that the blanket did not negatively elevate muscle enzymes.”
The findings not only support the use of the BEMER blanket in horses with back pain, but also underline the importance of having new products tested—ideally through efforts of the manufacturers themselves.
“BEMER as a company is a very forward-thinking and innovative team (that) approached the CSU Equine Orthopaedic Research Center with interest in funding a research project involving use of the BEMER blanket,” King told The Horse. “As an equine rehabilitation specialist, (I think it) is always exciting to find companies willing to conduct research to provide evidence-based support for their novel technology.”
The article, “Effects of Bio-Electromagnetic Energy Regulation Blanket on Thoracolumbar Epaxial Muscle Pain in Horses,” appeared in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in April, 2022.