A Different Path

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Once considered outside the realm of commonplace medical treatments, complementary therapies have rightfully earned a place in our culture as beneficial resources for many conditions affecting the horse. Three broad spectrum modalities—acupuncture, chiropractic, and myofascial release—have demonstrated unique abilities to provide non-invasive relief from any number of lamenesses, as well as the aches and pains associated with high-performance athletes and gentle schoolmasters alike. Also employed on a routine basis to help achieve looser and freer movement, especially in the hind end, complementary therapies easily can be integrated into your wellness care program.

Heather Hoyns, a 27-year veteran DVM, offers therapeutic regimes for a number of musculoskeletal conditions from her Evergreen Equine of Vermont in Brownsville, Vt. She maintains that by addressing imbalances of the body, the body is better able to heal itself. Incorporating elements of both Western and Chinese philosophies, including animal chiropractic, she makes a point to say that nothing stands alone, however. “Without providing proper care and management, the horse’s body won’t be able to ‘hold’ chiropractic adjustments, or will continue to have problems that acupuncture can address, but not fix, until the base is stabilized.”

Acupuncture and Chiropractic

Dr. Hoyns received her DVM degree from the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University in 1981, then became certified in acupuncture from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS) in 1996. “I became interested in veterinary acupuncture while still in veterinary school, although I didn’t pursue that interest until a number of years later when I found that there were some lameness and medical issues that weren’t being fully addressed by conventional medicine. Acupuncture has become another tool in my tool box for dealing with these issues.”

As for chiropractic, she initially came to it as a non-believer. But after seeing the results of a colleague’s chiropractic evaluations and adjustments, she immediately enrolled in Options for Animals, the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association’s (ACVA) Animal Chiropractic course, becoming certified in Animal Chiropractic in 1997. “I was hooked,” she says. “Having this resource at my disposal has been extremely beneficial.”

What Exactly Is It?

These treatments long have been considered unconventional, and there still may be some confusion regarding the various terminologies. To demystify “complementary medicine,” Hoyns offers this definition: “An inclusive term referring to medical treatments outside of traditional Western medicine as we know it. I feel that acupuncture and chiropractic, as two examples, are integral parts of a ‘holistic’ philosophy of health care.” The two philosophies, she adds, are “methods that can aid in reaching and maintaining a state of optimal health.

“Acupuncture has been practiced for over 3,000 years in China, and is the primary health care system for about one quarter of the world’s population. Acupuncture works on the principle that there is another system in the body similar to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Energy or ‘chi’ flows through this system in pathways known as ‘meridians.’ Acupuncture points along these meridians are treated with fine acupuncture needles to either increase or decrease the flow of chi. Areas where the energy is blocked are thus ‘opened,’ and areas where there is too much energy or inflammation are ‘turned down.’ ”

Referring to chiropractic care, she says, “Chiropractic care alone does not pretend to encompass the entire study of health and disease, but rather offers alternative explanations for disease and provides complementary procedures using the inherent recuperative powers of the body, while also dealing with the intimate relationship of the spinal column and the nervous system. A chiropractic adjustment is a high-velocity, short-lever, controlled thrust at a specific spinal joint to correct a vertebral subluxation (a spinal misalignment or joint dysfunction). All of these procedures work together to enable the horse to reach his/her potential.”

Complementary therapies and Western veterinary medicine (WVM) share common goals, but use vastly different means. For the complementary medical practitioner, the guiding principles are to find the source of the disorder and rebalance the body in order to support the healing process. For Western veterinarians, the protocol is to concentrate on suppressing symptoms if the problem cannot be identified.

For instance, Hoyns singles out Western medicine’s use of conventional diagnostics—blood tests and x-rays—as standard procedures, whereas complementary procedures focus on a different set of diagnostic tools, such as “pulses” and “meridians,” along with examining the appearance of the tongue, which in and of itself offers additional information as to the body’s health. “Even though the role of genetics and environmental conditions may play a part, broad spectrum irregularities can also be attributed to acute or chronic musculoskeletal imbalances,” she notes.

Myofascial Release Therapy

Matt and Judie Fitzgerald, owners of Otter Creek Equine Sports Therapy, registered RNs and proponents of myofascial release therapy, offer another perspective on a complementary, non-invasive treatment that has shown significant results for both people and horses. Devotees of the John F. Barnes’ myofascial release approach, a method of evaluating and treating pain and dysfunction by employing gentle, sustained pressure into restricted fascial (i.e., connective) tissues in the body, the Fitzgeralds offer a pain-free healing experience that also promotes increased range of motion.

Judie says the fascia is a densely woven covering that penetrates as it connects every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein, in addition to all internal organs—heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord. “In essence, it is one complete structure that exists from head to toe without interruption.” She adds that the fascia also is crucial to how our body supports itself: “As it surrounds and attaches to all structures, the fascia provides the stability that enables us to remain upright and balanced.”

She points out that the fascia can shape our ability to tolerate stress and strain. In its normal state, the fascia is flexible, stretching and moving without restriction; however, due to trauma, scarring, repetitive stress or inflammation, it loses its elasticity and becomes tight, generally followed by pain and stiffness. “It is through hands-on body awareness that this form of trigger point therapy is able to re-educate the tensed muscles into pain-free habits,” she says.

A long-time horse owner, Judie came to the field as a result of her own injuries. “Over many years of riding, the stresses had built up to a point where I was having constant pain in my diaphragm, which also affected my breathing,” she says. Desperate for relief after her condition had languished under a variety of doctors’ care, she tried myofascial release, and her condition resolved completely. “I went down the conventional medicine route, but to no avail,” she says. “With myofascial release I gained significant change and relief. It was truly remarkable.”

She become enamored with the underlying principles, and she and her husband pursued their new-found interest in earnest. Twelve years later, they have established a respected practice with a concentration on equine dysfunction. “Horses have the same structures as humans, with similar responses to stress and injury. They are especially prone to inflammation, loss of motion, and pain, and respond very well to this type of treatment, which is gratifying for us, as we often see dramatic results.”

The Fitzgeralds’ sessions typically begin by gathering information, including a medical history, current job and the problem at hand. A visual evaluation at the walk and trot and manual palpation to pinpoint sensitive areas follow. “Muscles only contract; they need to be stretched through movement, which is what we do when we apply pressure to the site,” says Judie.

According to Barnes’ doctrine, the time element is essential to the process. Judie explains that a three- to five-minute application of pressure enables short, tight, and bound down muscles to stretch to the end of their range, thereby encouraging a return to a natural, relaxed state.

The take-home message is to view complementary therapies an adjunct to conventional medical practices. While each horse will respond to a particular modality on a personal basis, it is always recommended when considering a new treatment program to discuss your options with your veterinarian.