Veterinary spinal manipulation therapy is more commonly known as “animal chiropractic” care. In the state of Wisconsin, only doctors of chiropractic, who practice on people, are allowed to use the terms “chiropractic” or refer to themselves as “chiropractors.” As veterinarians, in this state we are restricted to use the phrase “veterinary spinal manipulation therapy.” Now that we’ve clarified the terminology, what exactly is this therapy and when should you consider it for your horse?
Veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT) involves locating specific regions or joints in the patient that have decreased mobility. This includes all of the joints of the spinal column as well as the attachment of the ribs to the spine and the joints in the limbs. Any joint consists of the bones involved as well as the muscles and ligaments attached to those bones. The shape of the bones determines the full, possible range of motion but the tone and flexibility of the attached muscles will determine what the actual range of motion and mobility in that joint is. Decreased mobility is intimately connected with the subsequent health and function of the connective tissues, blood supply, pain level, and the nervous system in general.
For example, think about how it feels to sit still in one position at an office desk or in a car for an extended period of time. It can be uncomfortable at first to stand up and start moving, but then it feels much better after you do. All creatures, whether they are four-legged or two-legged, are built to regularly move and function best, physically and mentally, when they have a full range of motion and move well. This is the basis of why it is often recommended to go for a walk when you need to feel better or clear your head. The nerves in your body that connect your brain and thoughts to your muscles and tendons function best when your body is moving well and your body functions best when your brain is working well.
When an area of decreased mobility, sometimes called a “restriction,” “hypomobility,” or “subluxation,” is found, motion is restored by applying a high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust into the plane of motion of the joint. This is also known as an adjustment. This triggers the nerves from that joint in such a way that muscles around that joint relax. This allows the range of motion of that joint to improve, which in turn supports the muscles maintaining tone and flexibility to support that new range of motion. An additional neurologic benefit is that the adjustment directly decreases pain by decreasing the activity of nerves associated with pain. You can think of the whole thing like a door on rusty hinges where the rusted door is the joint with hypomobility. You can open the door, but not all the way and it takes a lot of effort. By applying a sudden, fast amount of force in the direction of the movement of the door, you can now open the door fully. That is a little bit like what the adjustment accomplishes – uses a very fast, specially directed movement to restore a full range of motion.
With that in mind, how do you decide if your horse will benefit from veterinary spinal manipulation? Beyond routine adjustments to help maintain the whole body working at its best, there are some common complaints that can be directly treated with VSMT. Examples include decreased performance, or your horse not being able to specifically perform a certain maneuver as well as expected. Oftentimes behavioral changes when being ridden, such as pinning ears, tail swishing, etc… are a sign of pain and may indicate the need for VSMT. Overt back pain, such as bucking while being ridden, being girthy, or resenting being mounted may be other specific signs. There may be another underlying reason for the change in performance or behavior and we always recommend a full evaluation by your veterinarian to determine together what the best therapy is for you and your horse.
Lastly, when selecting a professional to evaluate your horse, ensure that he or she has received adequate training. The doctor should be certified by graduating from an accredited program or by attending an approved training program then passing a rigorous exam given by a professional veterinary chiropractic association. Ideally, the doctor is also familiar specifically with horses and works with them regularly.
For more information or to schedule your horse’s evaluation with Great Lakes Equine Wellness Center, please call us at (920) 779-4444!