Study: Electrical Stimulation Can Reduce Back Pain in Horses

Funtional electrical stimulation, or FES, might help reduce back pain in horses with asymmetric multifidi muscles, researchers found.
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Back pain in horses
FES might help reduce back pain in horses with asymmetric multifidi muscles. | Photo: Courtesy Dr. Sheila Schils

In humans, the muscles that stabilize the spine—including the multifidi muscle—play an important role in maintaining health and function. Even small variations in muscle symmetry can result in potentially debilitating conditions such as scoliosis, said Sheila Schils, MS, PhD. Likewise, muscle asymmetry and associated back pain in horses can lead to poor performance.

People can perform exercises to strengthen and build a weak multifidi muscle, as can horses. But neuromuscular stimulation could be more effective for targeting precisely the muscles that need to develop in horses, said Schils, who presented on the topic at the 2017 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Nov. 17-21 in San Antonio, Texas. Functional electric stimulation (FES) is a type of electrotherapy that stimulates the motor nerves responsible for muscle function, meaning it could help achieve or maintain multifidi muscle symmetry.

Schils presented the results of a study in which researchers evaluated the therapy’s impact on equine multifidi muscle asymmetry. She is the principal of EquiNew, which produces FES equipment and provided it for use in the study and funded the statistical analyses. Diane Isbell, DVM, a private practitioner from Livermore, California; Suzan Oakley, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, of Oakley Equine Sports Medicine, in De Leon Springs, Florida; and muscle expert Ugo Carraro, MD, of the University of Padova, in Italy, carried out the study and statistical analyses

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Erica Larson, former news editor for The Horse, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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