Hands on a Hard Body

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Who doesn’t love a full body massage? It helps rub away stress, ease sore muscles and release tension. Evidence has shown massage was practiced 3,000 years ago by, among others, the Arabs, Chinese, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Technically, massage is described as the systematic manipulation of the body’s muscles to benefit mainly the muscular system, but also the circulatory and nervous systems. Over the past several decades, this practice has seeped over into the animal world, but does it really work?

The popularity of holistic treatments in horses, of which massage is one, has increased significantly in the last 10 years. A survey done by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) in 1996 showed that six percent of their members used alternative therapies. That percentage increased to 22 percent in 1998 and 31 percent in 1999.

The most common modality was massage. Also, a study done around 2000 by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) indicated that one in five members was using some type of alternate therapy. However, as the popularity increases, so does the debate as to whether or not alternative therapies really work.

The AAEP states in its Guidelines on Therapeutic Options written in 1992 that it supports the right for vets to prescribe treatment believed to be in the horse’s best interest and consistent with the Veterinary Oath of Practice. Their official position on massage therapy is as follows:

“Massage is a technique in which the practitioner uses hands and body to manipulate soft tissue, thereby positively affecting the health and well-being of the animal. Massage should be performed by a graduate of an accredited massage school who has specialized training in equine anatomy, physiology, massage and veterinary ethics. The work should be done under the referral of a veterinarian.”

However, science has not proven massage therapy’s effectiveness in the horse. There are some who believe that a person simply isn’t strong enough to manipulate large muscle masses in the horse. David Ramey, DVM, is an equine veterinarian in California and an outspoken skeptic of all alternative therapies. In his book Consumer’s Guide to Alternative Therapies in the Horse, Dr. Ramey states that “your horse may appear to enjoy being massaged, and standard techniques are unlikely to cause any harm. But at this time there’s no reason to believe that massage is critical in maintaining its health or boosting its athletic performance. However, before any firm conclusions can be drawn, much more data is needed.”

While scientifically unproven, massage therapy is thought to have a number of benefits. Proponents feel that it is useful to stretch and relax muscles and promote flexibility, which increases range of motion. In addition, massage may help tired, sore muscles by mechanically ridding them of lactic acid, which is a metabolic by-product. It is believed that different massage strokes cause capillaries to expand, thus increasing blood flow. The massaging motions stimulate nerve endings beneath the skin. The nerve impulses are relayed to the brain and spinal cord, which translate them into relaxation messages and sends the messages back to the muscles. Finally, it is believed that massage encourages the flow of lymph, a fluid that transports proteins and other substances from the muscles and bones to the blood. Increasing the lymph flow helps to prevent fluid accumulation in the tissues and joints.

Of course, massage is not a cure-all, and there are instances where massage is not appropriate. They are: open sores caused by a bacterial or viral infection, a torn muscle, an area with internal bleeding, inflammatory arthritis, or calcification in the soft tissues. Massaging these areas could increase circulation, or inflammation, which is just the opposite of what needs to occur. Furthermore, it is believed that massage should be performed before exercise—but not after as it could aggravate an existing injury.

Whether or not massage therapy is effective is up to the individual’s opinion. In time, hopefully, science will give us more to go on.