Disorders of the Spine in Horses

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Key takeaways

Spinal disorders are a group of conditions that affect the bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and other structures of the back in horses.

  • Spinal disorders are most common in horses involved in heavy sport and competition
  • Causes include degenerative diseases, injury, and overuse
  • Symptoms are often subtle at first, including changes in performance or mood, poor performance, alterations to gait or musculature, and asymmetry of the body
  • Some conditions worsen over time
  • Horses with symptoms of spinal disorders require prompt veterinary care
  • Diagnostic tools include physical examination, bone scans, X-rays, ultrasound, and diagnostic analgesia
  • Treatment depends on the underlying cause and includes anti-inflammatories, pain medications, and surgery
  • Prognosis depends on the underlying cause, but is typically good with respect to quality of life
  • Many affected horses are unable to return to their previous level of performance
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A closer look: Disorders of the Spine in Horses


Most spinal disorders are not life-threatening, but many affect the physical condition and capability of the horse. Veterinary care is required as soon as back pain is noted, to treat underlying causes early and avoid further issues.

The symptoms and severity of spinal disorders depend on the underlying condition, and how far the condition progresses before it is diagnosed and treated. Left untreated, many spinal disorders progress, causing worsening symptoms.

There are several components of the spine that can potentially cause back pain.

Sacroiliac disease is a condition affecting the junction between the sacrum and the ilium. The ligaments around this area can be damaged through a fall injury, excessive exertion, overstretching, poor posture, poor conformation, or traumatic injuries at birth.

Kissing spine is a condition where the parts of the spine that can be felt as bumps along the horse’s back begin to rub against each other, causing damage. This condition occurs most often in performance and sport horses, due to athletic demands. Left untreated, the edges and tips of the spinous processes degenerate over time and cause arthritis.

Spondylosis and spinal arthritis are degenerative spine diseases typically seen in older horses, as a result of wear and tear.

Risk factors


Sacroiliac disease is a subgroup of spinal disorder. Horses with sacroiliac disease are more likely to develop symptoms that can be confused with lower limb pain, in addition to other symptoms of back pain. Symptoms of SI disease include:

  • Frequent shifting of weight from one leg to the other
  • Difficulty standing on one leg, such as for shoeing
  • Asymmetrical development of the muscles of the hindquarters
  • Dragging one or both hind toes
  • Holding the tail to one side

Horses most susceptible to spinal disorders include

  • Sport and race horses
  • Work horses
  • Older horses
  • Horses with conformation issues
  • Horses used for a single discipline
  • Horses working solely in arenas on maintained footing
  • Certain breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods

Possible causes


In general, disorders of the spine are caused by overexertion, wear and tear (aging), poor conformation, repetitive strain, and/or injury.

Main symptoms


Testing and diagnosis


Horses with symptoms of spinal disorders require prompt veterinary attention because many conditions that affect the spine are progressive or worsen with continued strain. Diagnostic tools include:

  • Physical examination
  • Lameness examination
  • Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or ultrasound
  • Specialized imaging such as bone scans
  • Blocking spinal joints or nerves to identify the site of pain

Steps to Recovery


Treatments include:

  • Muscle relaxants
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Pain medication
  • Surgery

Long-term management of spinal conditions to help relieve pain may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Mesotherapy (the injection of pharmaceuticals into the middle layers of the skin)
  • Shockwave therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Laser therapy

Some types of treatment for specific underlying conditions are banned by competitive organizations. In cases where horses are used in competition, attention must be paid to ensuring that no competition rules are contravened as a result of treatment.

The prognosis depends on the severity of the underlying condition. In most cases, the prognosis is good if treatment is started early. Some conditions heal very gradually and require several months or more for recovery.

Many horses are unable to maintain their previous performance level once symptoms develop, even with treatment. These horses may require a reduced workload, a new sporting career, or retirement, depending on the severity of symptoms.

Prevention


Currently there are no proven preventative measures to avoid spinal disorders. Horses that have varied activities, those that work on several different surfaces, and those that are in excellent health overall have fewer back issues.

Are Disorders of the Spine in Horses common?


Spinal disorders are uncommon in horses.

Typical Treatment


  • Muscle relaxants
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Mesotherapy
  • Shock wave therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Laser therapy
  • Surgery

References


Peter Clegg, MA, Vet MB, DipECVS, PhD, MRCVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Peter Clegg, MA, Vet MB, DipECVS, PhD, MRCVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Peter Clegg, MA, Vet MB, DipECVS, PhD, MRCVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Peter Clegg, MA, Vet MB, DipECVS, PhD, MRCVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Peter Clegg, MA, Vet MB, DipECVS, PhD, MRCVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Jackie Hill - Writing for The Horse
Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA - Writing for The Horse
Les Sellnow - Writing for The Horse
Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc - Writing for The Horse

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