Shockwave Therapy eases pain and helps horses heal
Shockwave therapy was first used on animals in 1986 in Europe to treat tendon, ligament, and bone problems. This therapy, also called lithotripsy, means “to hammer stones” and has been utilized in human medicine since 1980 to break up kidney and bladder stones without surgery. One of the first machines for horses was brought to the U.S. in 1998 and installed at Interstate Equine Services (Goldsby, Okla.) by Dr. David McCarroll.
Dr. Bruce Connally in Buffalo, Wyo., utilizes a portable machine in his mobile equine practice, specializing in sport horse medicine and lameness. He said today’s models are more efficient and portable than previous machines.
When he set up his practice, Dr. Connally bought a Suburban and put $80,000 worth of equipment in it. “I can drive to anybody’s barn or ranch and take x-rays with a digital x-ray machine, view the x-rays on my computer, do digital ultrasound, and shockwave treatment,” said Connally.
“I bought my first shockwave machine in 2000. There are many thoughts about how it works. The best way I can explain it to clients is that it’s like an ocean wave. The wave goes through the ocean and the water all stays in the same place, until the wave and its energy hits the beach. When it hits the beach, rocks move. We can send this energy through the body without damaging anything, yet where it hits the focus area – a bone, or where a tendon attaches – it has an effect,” he explains.
“In humans this technology was used to break up kidney stones and patients reported that their arthritis hurt less. Some of the benefits were discovered by accident. It seems to stimulate healing, probably by energizing interleukin 1 (cytokine that participates in the regulation of immune responses, inflammatory reactions, and hematopoiesis) and other chemical messengers in the body that facilitate the actual healing. Research has shown that interleukin 1 is stimulated by shockwaves, but we don’t know what other effects it may have. We know it increases blood flow, which is essential for healing,” he said.
He uses it on horses with ringbone, sore backs, tendon injuries and navicular syndrome. “If a horse has a small ringbone, shockwave can really help, but it’s not very effective on big, ugly ringbone. I have decreased lameness two grades, using shockwave on some horses with early ringbone,” he said.
Connally sees some old horses with chips in a knee. “They’ve beat up that knee with hard use, or they’ve fallen or gotten kicked. With the chip and the pain, the knee starts bending forward.”
Many of those old horses are still valuable for kids to ride, if they don’t stumble. “It won’t bring these horses clear back so they can keep working as a team roping horse or an all-day circle horse on a big ranch, but I’ve seen it help enough that kids can use them – and go trotting around the barrels – and be comfortable and sound doing it.”
He has also used shockwave on navicular horses, including one of his own horses that he had previously retired. “This helped for about three months, with really good relief. He’s my pet and I didn’t want to get rid of him, so I shockwaved his feet last summer and it gave him relief for awhile. This therapy can be repeated, so I will use it on him again,” said Connally.
Some of the early use of shockwave therapy was on hocks and other joints. “This is like using it on navicular; it makes the horse feel better for a few months, but it’s not a cure,” said Connally.
Shockwave also seems to work on soft tissue injuries to speed healing and reduce scar tissue. Dr. Connally recently worked on a horse that had been tied to a trailer and pulled back, tearing a hamstring muscle, which can create scar tissue and fibrotic myopathy. “It was a huge tear. I used my ultrasound machine to examine it and could see a big blood clot in there, bigger than my fist. That horse was very lame. I’ve never seen a hamstring tear that badly. So we shockwaved that horse, using several treatments over a six-week period, and after that he was completely sound at a walk. I am very excited about the way this injury is healing,” he said.
He worked on a horse at Casper, Wyo., with a sore back. “The owners had laid him off work for a year, hoping his back injury would heal. They called me to look at the horse because he wasn’t getting any better. I shockwaved him twice. He tried to kick and bite the first time because his back hurt so badly, and he was sure I was going to hurt him more. I came back to do it again a couple weeks later and he just stood there eating grain and ignored me, and today he is sound.”
“I don’t know exactly what the shockwave is doing but I know that it sped up the healing,” he said.
“I am also an acupuncturist (learning this technique in 1999 at Colorado State University) and I often mix the two, using shockwave to trigger acupuncture points. On that horse, I found acupuncture trigger points in his back, and used the shockwave on those,” said Connally.
His shockwave machine is small and portable. “There are two kinds of shockwave—a radial version and a focused version. Mine is a radial, which is less expensive, a little smaller, and doesn’t penetrate as deeply. I keep mine in my Suburban, so whenever I run across a patient that needs it, it’s there,” he said.