Your Guide to Equine Health Care

The Science Behind Rehab Therapy

In the right hands, these physical therapy methods can help rehabilitate injured horses.

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In the right hands, these physical therapy methods can help rehabilitate injured horses.

In human medicine physical therapy (PT) is a well-established health care area. Likely because of physical therapists’ success in treating people, veterinarians and equine professionals have been using PT to help manage a variety of medical conditions, from bone and soft tissue injuries to weakness and inflexibility.

According to Jennifer Brooks, PT, Med, CERTP, owner and operator of Equine Rehabilitation Services LLP, in Brookline, N.H., some of these conditions include, specifically:

  • Muscle injury/damage following trauma or surgery;
  • Tendon injuries (acute and chronic);
  • Osteoarthritis;
  • Bucked shins, splints, curbs, and some fractures, such as otherwise "untreatable" pelvic fractures;
  • Spinal dysfunction and back pain (described further in this article);
  • Injuries or paralysis of the suprascapular nerve, which innervates (supplies nerves to) some of the shoulder muscles;
  • Muscle atrophy (decrease in size/muscle wasting);
  • Acute and chronic wounds (e.g., post-surgical healing sites);
  • Neck, truck, and limb inflexibility;
  • Stifle weakness and dysfunction (e.g., intermittent upward fixation of the patella);
  • Recovery from neurologic disease such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) or equine motor neuron disease;
  • Disuse contractures or atrophy during stall rest or immobilization; and even
  • Loss of performance.

Although many enthusiastic owners, trainers, and veterinarians support using PT in horses, some members of the equine industry remain wary. The "science" behind PT in equine medicine is as inconsistent and unclear as it is with other complementary and alternative therapies, such as nutritional supplements and acupuncture (discussed in the August and October issues, respectively). For that reason PT has not been fully integrated into the care and husbandry of horses, despite the large number of medical and surgical conditions that equine physical therapists and rehabilitation professionals suggest are amenable to PT. Part of the problem associated with proving PT’s worth is this wide range of treatable conditions, the number of different therapy methods, a lack of research dollars to conduct studies, and the small number of horses in each study.

What is Physical

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Written by:

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she’s worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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