Acupuncture Treatment of Sport Injuries in Polo Horses
Article by Dr Jan Still
Acupuncture is a therapeutic method based on the stimulation of acupuncture points. It is highly effective in alleviating pain and other medical conditions in man as well as animals. Regarding the equestrian disciplines, acupuncture has been used very successfully in managing various riding problems. Soft tissue injuries due to strained muscles or ligaments or irritated peripheral nerves are also well-managed using acupuncture.
Clinical indications for the use of acupuncture
Sore back and neck
These two clinical conditions are commonly encountered in polo horses. The underlying soreness, muscle spasm and stiffness cause numerous riding problems. The neck pain causes high or low carriage of the head, as well as loss of flexibility and resistance to bend sideways. The back pain is manifested by general loss of mobility, change of temperament, dipping of the back whilst being mounted, inability to turn quickly and a slow take-off. Uncontrollable running away, bucking, stopping and even tripping can be other indications of sore neck and back as well.
Incorrect limb movement and lameness
Acupuncture treatment is efficacious in managing soft tissue injuries located in the shoulder, elbow, hip and stifle areas. These injuries can be a cause a uni- or bi-lateral limb stiffness, shortened stride, “choppy” or uneven gait, or lameness.
Generalized body pain and stiffness
Some horses showing poor performance or difficult behaviour are subsequently diagnosed with generalized muscle pain and spasm. This distressing condition can develop as a result of excessive body strain associated with training, competitions, or as a consequence of accidents. There seems to be a predisposition for the "tying-up" and other forms of generalized muscle pain and spasm in particular horses. Acupuncture can be very rewarding in terms of alleviating the soreness and shortening the recovery rate.
Soft or hard mouth
Some horses develop extreme sensitivity in particular nerves of the head. The sharp pain can cause a range of riding problems such as excessive sensitivity on the bit, bridle lameness, head throwing or shaking, as well as resistance when turning the horse to a particular side.
The condition is manifested by excessive sensitivity of the horse when the girth is tightened. Often, the affected horses tend to run uncontrollably away or refuse to go forwards.
Some horses swish their tails when they are nervous or aggressive. However, this behaviour can also indicate a physical discomfort associated with the soreness in the low back and certain hind quarter muscles.
Acupuncture treatment is carried out by a veterinarian knowledgeable in modern veterinary equine medicine, as well as in the art and science of acupuncture. A correct diagnosis is an essential part of successful acupuncture treatment. The diagnosis is based on a detailed examination of the locomotor system including the joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves etc.
Additional diagnostic procedures such as radiographs, nerve blocks or scans should be carried out in specific clinical conditions. Intra-articular lesions, as well acute injuries with bleeding, swelling and/or infection should be treated using conventional veterinary care rather than by acupuncture.
About 400 acupuncture points have been described on the body of the horse. Most of these points are found along so-called acupuncture meridians inter-connecting particular body parts. Depending on the nature of an actual problem, a number of acupuncture points is stimulated using fine metallic needles or injections of particular solutions. The choice of points, the direction and depth of the needling, as well as timing of the treatment are all important factors influencing the outcome of the treatment.
Generally speaking, acupuncture treatment is well accepted by horses; some animals can even become quite sedated as they experience the pain-relief and muscle relaxation during the treatment. Occasionally, a twitch must be used for a limited period of time in unruly or otherwise difficult horses. Usually, two to three treatments are necessary to address a particular problem.
Pain: head, trunk and hind quarters
A ten year old Thoroughbred mare was referred for acupuncture treatment. The following riding problems were mentioned: rearing when tying up the girth, head throwing when stopping during the game, sensitive flanks and sore hind limbs. The clinical examination revealed severe pain around the temporo-mandibular (jaw) joint, in the pole area, on the tip of shoulders as well as on the sides of the chest and in the abdominal muscles. Additionally, muscle spasm was detected on the sides of the hind limbs. A diagnosis of a particular meridian dysfunction was established and the treatment consisted of insertion of acupuncture needles into two points on the head and in the flank respectively. The initial level and extent of pain was reduced by approximately 80% following examination 24 hours later. Another acupuncture treatment was given. The owner reported a significant improvement of riding ability and comfort of the horse thereafter.
Head throwing and cold back
A nine year old Thoroughbred mare was known to throw her head from side-to-side during the game. Also, she suffered from oversensitive (cold) back for more than two months. A marked pain along the upper jaw, sore back, as well prominent muscle pain and spasm in the biceps muscle and in the shoulder area were diagnosed. The condition was treated with injections of saline solution with vitamin B into selected points on the neck, back and around the shoulders. When examining the horse the next day, only a moderate sensitivity of the low back, as well as along a nerve on the front limbs was found.
Following these two treatments, the horse was regularly ridden and even three months later the owner reported a significant improvement in the horse’s ability to play polo without any obvious signs of pain or discomfort.
An unruly horse
A seven year old Thoroughbred mare was reported to be generally “hot” and difficult to ride. A high head carriage was another complaint. The initial clinical examination revealed a severe muscle spasm in the hamstring muscles on the back of the hind limbs, in the low back, as well as a prominent pain along a nerve in the low jaw. Saline/vitamin B solution was injected into several acupuncture points situated on the chest, sides of the flanks and at the origin of the hamstring muscles. Only a mild residual muscle tenderness in the low back had to be treated the following day.
The horse then continued playing uneventfully for the next five months when it had to be treated again for an unrelated sport injury.