Corticosteroids can be an equine joint’s best friend or its worst enemy, depending on the veterinarian’s approach: Has he or she made a clear diagnosis of osteoarthritis? How many times has the horse’s joint been injected already, and is the horse a high-performance athlete? Which joint is the practitioner targeting, and what’s going on with the rest of the horse’s body? Because there are many considerations for applying corticosteroid joint injections safely and effectively, Peter Clegg, MA, VetMB, PhD, Dipl. ECVS, CertEO, MRCVS, from the University of Liverpool Veterinary Teaching Hospital, in Cheshire, U.K., addressed their use at the 2012 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Anaheim, Calif.

"The use of corticosteroids in joints involves risk, especially where there is no definitive diagnosis," Clegg remarked. But with appropriate care and use, veterinarians might be able to mitigate these risks. He urged practitioners to first resolve a primary problem as thoroughly as possible before resorting to corticosteroid joint injections. That said, this stepwise approach can be a more expensive route. Clegg acknowledged the pressure equine veterinarians face from trainers and owners demanding joint treatment without a clear diagnosis.

Clegg remarked that there seems to be a "maintenance injection" culture in the United States unlike anything he has seen in Europe. "Corticosteroids have a profound effect on chondrocyte (cartilage cell) metabolism and are not at all advisable in the absence of joint inflammation," he warned. He urged practitioners to pursue a clear diagnosis if they suspect joint pathology rather than reach immediately for the corticosteroids and a needle, particularly when treating racehorses or performance horses.