Joint conditions in horses | Symptoms, causes and treatments
Caring for a horse is an ongoing responsibility and as many horse owners will know managing their horses joints is an important aspect of ensuring a happy and sound horse.
A horses joints are subjected to extreme pressures and stresses and as such are a regular and common condition to manage amongst horses of all ages.
Joint conditions in horses range from early onset of arthritis to equine joint disease. In the vast majority of cases a horse with any form of joint condition will show signs of lameness and indicate a reduction in the joints mobility level.
In this article we take a quick look at the most common forms of equine joint disorders and evaluate the symptoms, causes and various treatments available.
Types of equine joint conditions
There are several types of condition which are labelled as a ‘joint condition’.
1. Equine Arthritis
The most common joint condition found in horses and ponies is arthritis which accounts for over 60% of lameness issues found in horses.
Arthritis directly refers to inflammation within the joint itself and all joint diseases which impact horses produce a level of inflammation.
There are several main forms of equine arthritis; Equine Osteoarthritis (or degenerative joint disease, DJD), Equine Rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease which effects the joint), Traumatic arthritis which is a direct cause relating to a specific injury and Septic arthritis caused by a bacterial infection within the joint.
You can learn more about the specific types of equine arthritis here.
Although there is no known cure for arthritis there are many methods adopted by horse owners to offer their horse the best in ongoing treatment and management, inducing many holistic and natural approaches.
2. Equine Osteochondrosis (Osteochondritis Dissecans)
Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is a common condition which affects both the cartilage and the bone in the joint itself. It is reported that OCD causes clinical signs in up to 25% of cases and is more commonly created by bone formation during a foals development.
Whilst the condition can be seen in older horses the majority of diagnosed animals with Osteochondritis are young horses. The condition can be seen in any joint but occurs most frequently in the hock, stifle or fetlock joints of the horses legs.
OCD is generally caused by rapid growth in a young horse, an issue with the animals diet (often related to a low copper diet), issues inherited through the horses genes, hormonal imbalances or directly related to a specific trauma.
The condition can also occur in older horses which often results in effusion (severe swelling) within the joint itself.
OCD is where the cartilage within a joint is not formed correctly which leads to irregular thickness of the cartilage. This process creates ‘bone flaps’ which remain attached to the bone or break off and float around the horses joint.
Diagnosis can be done by your vet using a series of examinations, both physical and lameness exams and radiographs (x-rays).
Treatment of OCD diagnosis is normally surgical removal of the abnormal bone or cartilage.
Recovery from Osteochondrosis will depend on the severity of the condition but in many cases will require a period of box rest followed by an extensive and progressive exercise program to gradually get your horse back to full movement. It is likely to be a minimum of 6 months but can take up to 18 months to establish a complete rehabilitation process.
3. Equine Subchondral Cystic Lesions (or Bone cysts)
Bone cysts are abnormalities of a joint which are more commonly found in young horses and sometimes referred to as a ‘developmental orthopaedic disease’.
The most common location for subchondral cystic lesions is the stifle, however, cysts can be found in any joint and occasionally in the proximal tibia, the cannon bones, the pastern and coffin joints, the elbows, shoulders and hips.
Wherever the cyst may occur, lameness and clinical signs are common.
If the cyst is formed in the stifle then most horses will indicate a clinical problem. If the fetlock has developed a bone cyst then there is likely to be obvious lameness and filling within the fetlock joint itself. Mobility of the joints will be greatly reduced.
In the majority of cases managing the condition pays limited reward with arthroscopic surgery often the only solution. In 70% of cases surgery is found to be successful.
Without delving into too much information within this article, one thing is clear - if your horse does develop signs of a bone cyst then immediate medical intervention is required.
Diagnosis will be carried out by your vet using radiographs (X-ray) and in some case thermal imaging.
4. Equine Bursitis
As with other joint conditions found in horses, equine bursitis is a common condition within the equestrian community and directly relates to inflammation within the horses bursa.
The bursa itself is a fluid filled sack found between muscles, skin, tendons and bones whose purpose is to provide lubrication to the joint.
Equine bursitis can be classified as either ‘true bursitis’ or ‘acquired bursitis’. if the bursa develops an infection then this is known as ‘septic bursitis’ and is more serious than true or acquired bursitis.
‘True bursitis' (sometimes referred to as ‘natural bursitis’) is generally found in the legs or withers and is located within the joint itself.
Cunean Bursitis - This is predominately associated to an underlying condition known as tarsitis and found in the tarsal joint (the lower hocks).
Navicular Bursitis - Often considered as part of navicular disease and his often associated to a puncture of the bursa area which leads to an infection.
Bicipital Bursitis - Most commonly associated to an injury to the horses shoulder and normally from an injury to the bicipital tendon or caused by floating bone fragments within the shoulder joint.
Fistulous Withers - Not as common as other diagnosed form of bursitis, fistulous withers are caused by an infection of the bursa which overlay the horses withers, the ridge between the shoulder blades of the horse.
‘Acquired bursitis’ is a variety of conditions which have developed over a period of time as a reaction to friction or pressure on the joint which allows fluid to form and get trapped with the fibrous tissues surrounding the joint or via a direct injury or trauma.
Carpal Hygroma - Caused by direct trauma to the horses knee and usually occurs from lying on hard ground, excessive exercise on hard ground surfaces or following a direct trauma to the knee. In many cases this will result in severe swelling of the knee and heavily restrict movement within the knee joint.
Olecranon Bursitis - This condition is often called a ‘capped elbow’ and is caused by a trauma to the horses elbow.
Calcaneal Bursitis - This condition is often called ‘capped hock’ and is caused by a direct trauma such as kicking a wall or gate.
As with the majority of health concerns within a horse, immediate medical intervention is required if your horse shows any signs of bursitis.
Diagnosis will contain a series of examinations and in many cases radiographs (x-rays) will be carried out to establish the exact location of the condition. Once a full diagnosis is completed your vet will normally classify the bursitis and pinpoint the exact treatment required.
A treatment plan will then be designed offering the best opportunity for a full recovery.
Recovery following diagnosis of true bursitis is good but for acquired bursitis recovery can be more complicated. Septic bursitis, particularly if left alone for a period of time can result in poor prognosis.
Tendonitis is a common joint condition found in horses and directly rates to the horses tendons.
In the majority of cases tendonitis is caused over a period of time and will lead to varying levels of lameness.
If you suspect your horse is developing symptoms of tendonitis it is important to obtain a clinal evaluation by your vet.
Tenosynovitis is a painful condition caused by inflammation of the protective sheath (the synovial membrane) which surrounds the horses superficial and deep digital flexor tendons.
The condition is more common in working horses and can worsen quickly causing irreversible damage to the horses tendons if left untreated.
Symptoms will include lameness, particularly after exercise, and visible pain with flexing of the limb itself. In septic cases you may notice a wound or puncture mark in the effected area.
If you suspect your horse is developing symptoms of Tenosynovitis it is important to obtain a clinal evaluation by your vet immediately. Tenosynovitis can be complicated to diagnose using ultrasounds.
Proliferative synovitis is caused when the pad made of cartilage located on the joint capsule of the fetlock becomes swollen and inflamed. More commonly found in active, working or sports horses synovitis is well recognised as a repetitive injury through repeated trauma of the front of the horse fetlock.
Symptoms of synovitis will include swelling within the fetlock, a reduction in your horses movement, pain when moving or flexing the fetlock joint and varying levels of lameness.
In the majority of cases your vet will carry out a range of examinations and an ultrasound and radiographs. In some cases surgery may be required and in all cases a period of box rest will be required.
Capsulitis in horses is also a painful joint condition where the joint capsule itself becomes inflamed leading to a significant decrease in joint mobility.
In most cases the condition is caused as a consequence of a direct trauma or repetitive injury of the dorsal aspect of the fetlock joint - as such the condition is more commonly found in active sports horses.
If left untreated capsulitis can lead to further complications such as degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis.
9. Stifle injuries
Stifle injuries are also commonly found in sports horses or horses with an active lifestyle; the joint in the horses body which helps them propel forward.
Commonly used treatments for joint conditions in horses
Whatever the diagnosed joint condition is there are plethora of treatments available.
Corticosteroid and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) are widely administered to support reduction in inflammation (and associated pain) and in more severe cases antibiotics are administered to treat any bacterial infections. These are only available via licensed medical professionals.
A more recent development in treating the development of equine joint conditions are bisphosphonates which inhibit bone growth and have shown to support joint disorders. Regenerative and biologic medicines are evolving rapidly, providing steroid free joint treatments which can act as adequate substitutes to more conventional methods.
There are many supplements available within the equine community to help with equine joint conditions often administered orally and containing substances such as glucosamine and hyaluronic acid. In some cases the horses diet will be carefully adjusted with a view to reducing the animals weight and providing less stress on the joints.
A period of rest a recuperation will be required, lasting between 6 weeks and 18 months depending on the severity of the condition. Alongside a recovery and rehabilitation treatment plan many owners will be advised to provide regular daily exercise (light work) to help keep the joint moving in some capacity.
Bandages and compresses are also widely used to prevent over-flexing of the joint itself which can help reduce re-injury.
Cold or hot therapy, such as ice boots, are commonly used to support a reduction in inflammation and advancements in magnetic therapy also provide owners with a non-invasive form of therapy to help reduce inflammation on a long term basis.
Alongside treatment for pre-diagnosed joint conditions many owners now look at preventative action using supplements and tack such as EQU StreamZ magnetic bands.
Joint conditions are extremely common with horses and as such you are not alone!
Your veterinarian will be well equipped to support your horse with any joint condition diagnosis and with many clinical and holistic treatments available you are likely to be able to manage the condition moving forward with relative ease.
Each and every horse should be treated on an individual basis and often technologies such as ultrasounds and radiographs provide pinpoint diagnosis of the injury. If in any doubt, speak to your vet today.
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