Could This be Back Pain?

My mare appears to be in pain particularly in the withers, shoulder, and stomach areas. Is it possible that she has a pinched nerve?
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Q: My mare appears to be in pain particularly in the withers, shoulder, and stomach areas. She used to round her back, but has since stopped. She squeals when she is touched. She has been checked for ovary problems, bladder problems, lameness, and her blood test came back normal. Is it possible that she has a pinched nerve? Is there anything else I can check out for her? —Carolyn, via email

A: Often the biggest challenge in dealing with horses with chronic back pain is differentiating physical pain from a learned behavioral response to the chronic pain. An example of this is when a horse with a chronically poor-fitting saddle problem pins its ears and runs to the other side of the pasture when you bring the saddle out of the tack room.

Chronic, generalized pain involving the withers, shoulder, and abdominal areas is likely due to an abnormal or heightened response to chronic pain (also called sensitization). The history of having a rounded back (also called a roached back or kyphosis) is a common indication of a back problem. However, your horse’s back has now straightened out, which indicates a resolution or adaptation to the primary injury. It is possible that your horse has developed a learned response to the actual or perceived presence of pain, as indicated by her squealing when she is touched. Assuming that the squealing is a new behavior, it might be indicative of physical pain, the fear of potential pain, or a possible dominance issue. For example, she no longer considers you to be the lead mare, and she is telling you so.

Back or neck problems can be categorized into three types of injures: soft tissue (muscle or ligament), bone or joint, and nerve injuries. Horses with muscle injuries often have palpable muscle spasms and elevated muscle enzymes. Vague back problems involving the vertebrae or spinal joints are best evaluated with radiographs or nuclear scintigraphy (a bone scan). The diagnosis of spinal cord or peripheral nerve injuries (“a pinched nerve”) requires a detailed neurologic evaluation coupled with advanced diagnostic techniques

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Written by:

Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988 before completing a small animal internship. To further his training in conservatively managing spinal-related disorders, he pursued human training at Palmer College of Chiropractic-West and completed a veterinary chiropractic certification program in 1993. He completed his PhD, focusing on spinal pathology and pelvic biomechanics in Thoroughbred racehorses, from the University of California, Davis, and then studied equine spinal kinematics at Cornell University. While at Cornell, he directed the newly formed large and small animal Integrative Medicine Service. Currently, Haussler is an associate professor at the Colorado State University (CSU) Orthopaedic Research Center, where he’s involved in teaching, clinical duties, and researching. He is a charter diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and a course instructor for the Equine Rehabilitation Certification course, co-branded by the University of Tennessee and CSU.

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