When to use hot or cold therapy on a horses injury and why thermal imaging is a useful tool
When to apply cold or heat therapy to a horses injury
One of the oldest and most widely used forms of treatment in a horse is thermal therapy. Whether your horse has suffered a muscle strain, ligament injury or is suffering from inflammation many look to thermal therapy as part of the horses rehabilitation.
So, when to use hot or cold therapy?
Deciding on whether to deploy cold therapy or heat therapy to a horses injury or condition depends on many factors which need to be fully understood to provide the most effective treatment for the horse and importantly not exacerbate an issue.
Unless you’re skilled in the art of horse whispering it’s unlikely your horse can tell you what the issue is, and even then, technologies and products are now available which present proven benefits.
Heat therapy for horses
When your horse is showing no signs of pain or lameness, and no inflammation is visible - applying forms of heat therapy is possible.
Heat therapy is often used to help treat back pain but is also an important part of exercising, warming up the muscles prior to activity, just as with any athlete before a race. Warming up the muscles prior to exercise improves the flexibility of the soft tissue and surrounding muscles, tendon and ligaments and increases the horses overall range of movement. Heat therapy can also be used to decrease spasms within the muscle itself.
Heat supports the final stages of the natural healing process when the body actively replaces cells and repairing tissues with specialised cells, which are directly delivered via the blood stream. In many cases heat therapy is used for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time.
A common method of heat therapy used within the equine community is traditional magnetic therapy - normally found in boots, wraps or rugs. Magnetic therapy is developed to directly increase blood flow and as such this increases the thermal temperature where the tack is fitted. This presents an
Caution is advised when using traditional magnetic products directly after exercise, for long periods of time or when treating any injury or condition where reducing heat is advised. Although magnets do not create heat; the reaction in the body sees an increase in heat, as shown in a thermal imaging study.
Latest advancements in magnetic therapy now provide a technology which produces magnetic fields aimed at rebalancing the body on a molecular level without increasing heat.
Other therapeutic technologies which are classified as heat therapy include a plethora of infrared boots aimed at storing and redistributing the horses natural body heat, many of which have ceramic powders added to the material to provide the thermal increase. As well as therapeutic tack products aimed at increasing heat simply using bandaging or leg wraps can help increase the heat in the leg.
Fitting your horse with a turnout rug to keep them warm in the winter months is not, for the purpose of this article, classified as heat therapy. It could be argued that a rug does support the thermal regulation within a horse, particularly in colder weather, and there are many ‘heat therapy rugs’ available on the market which are marketed to cater for this. For those cold winter months we particularly like our Weatherbeeta 360g ComFiTec Ultra Cozi rug - expensive but well worth the money.
Top Tip: When treating a horse who may be experiencing a muscle or ligament problem avoiding an increase in heat is highly advised. With advancements in the magnetic therapy market, thermal imaging techniques have shown significant advantage in using advanced magnetism over more traditional magnetic techniques - providing a valuable tool to support the horse without increasing heat within the effected area and suitable for long term 24x7 use.
Cold therapy for horses
Applying cold therapy is often advised within the first 36-hours of a horses injury. During that period a horses damaged blood vessels will begin to haemorrhage which in turn will lead to inflammation and bruising.
As with any athlete, applying cold methods of therapy and reducing the temperature to an injured area is important. Cold therapy, also known as Cryotherapy, will decrease the permeability of the the blood vessels and help to manage inflammation and any associated levels of pain.
Cold therapies for horses are widely used in products such as ice boots and many owners will simply use cold water hosing or buckets full of ice to help cool down their horse after exercise. Unlike heat therapy cold therapy is completely safe and can be used immediately after surgery, trauma or simply as a cooling aid after exercise.
In the majority of cases, applying cold therapy (or heat therapy) to horse will generally take 10-15 minutes to bring the tissue to the target temperature so it is recommended to apply both for 20 minutes at a time.
Ice boots are become ever popular which as the name suggests are boots with ice packs built into them. Our favourite ice boots are the Woof Wear Polar ice boots which we use alongside our EQU StreamZ bands.
Although cold therapy is used within the first few days of an injury it also presents benefits to horse owners for longer term injuries and conditions. Cold therapy, including hosing-down after exercise, is used across all rehabilitation processes and as part of managing a horses ongoing care and wellbeing.
Why is thermal imaging used in the equine horse care
Thermal imaging within the equine community has been developed to help build a picture of your horses thermal pattern and circulation in any part of their body in a simple, non-invasive and stress free process.
Thermal technology, or thermography, enables the identification of more problematic areas of the horse often referred to as ‘hotspots' or ‘coldspots’ which can be seen when trauma or injury occurs creating a chemical reaction internally. When a horse has damaged a tendon, ligament, splint or muscle the bodies reaction is to increase blood flow to that area and thermal imaging is an ideal tool to detect inflammation which occurs as a ‘hotspot’ whereas abnormally cold areas, or ‘coldspots’ can indicate issues with circulation such as nerve damage, arthritic pain or muscle wastage.
The highly sensitive technology now used by leading thermal imaging experts is highly advanced and is widely deployed by horse owners to support specific injuries and as an effective monitoring tool. The horse simply stands in a temperature controlled environment and the imaging technology gets to work.
In this article we look at the technology itself and its benefits to horse owners, along with examples of how thermal imaging can be used to help owners manage and treat certain injuries and conditions.
Thermography Technology for horses
The art of using thermal imaging to aid the diagnosis of injuries in horses is known as thermography and is now widely used to provide an additional diagnosing tool just as x-rays, MRI scans and ultrasounds have done in the past. Thermal imaging technology provides an immediate visual aid and is both non-invasive and highly useful for detecting injury sites weeks in advance to an injury becoming clinically evident.
Thermography is used to locate the area of injured tissue and provide important information to the owner and vet as to the horse’s exact issue, recovery time and the probability of a full recovery.
What are the most common reasons to use thermal imaging on your horse
Thermal imaging is used within the equine community to help diagnose an existing issue or condition and also to support the ongoing health of active sports horses.
In most scenarios thermal imaging is used when an injury occurs so we’ll take a quick look at the most common situations the technology is used:
Ligament, muscle and tendon injuries
Likely to be the most common condition where thermal imaging is useful is with any ligament, muscle or tendon injury. As we mention above, a chemical reaction in the horses body leads to an increase in blood flow to that area often creating inflammation internally and externally. This inflammation can be clearly seen using thermal imaging technology and is very helpful in ascertaining exactly where the issue may lie. Tendons will sometimes show changes two to three weeks before an injury occurs (such as splints) so it becomes advantageous to use this technology to detect injuries before they become more serious. Many professionally competing horse yards now use thermal imaging techniques as part of their ongoing healthcare plan and are used on horses pre and post exercise as a preventative measure.
Joint conditions and skeletal problems
When a joint problem occurs thermal patterns can be distinctive. Degenerative issues such as equine arthritis will initially lead to an increase of heat within the effected joint until the horse stops using the joint and this heat reduces. The horse will remain in pain and the joint will appear cooler than it previously was.
Equine thermology provides a valuable insight into this process and thus a valuable diagnosis tool in detecting equine joint conditions and more serious fractures.
Many horses who experience back problems will show signs of pain which can be extremely difficult to detect where the exact issue is. The back is full of tendons, muscles and skeleton and covers a wide area on a horse. Back problems are considered a major cause of changes to horses gait and their overall performance. 'Kissing spine' is a common back problem.
Thermal imaging provides a valuable tool in diagnosing exactly where a spinal injury may have occurred. A horse for example with kissing spine will be clearly visible under thermal imaging - as well as sacroiliac joint damage, misalignment of the horses vertebrae, muscle atrophy in the spine or simply muscle inflammation around the spine.
In some cases a horses balance may be impacted by the fitting of a saddle. Problems directly relating to the fitting of a saddle can also be shown using thermal imaging and provide invaluable insight into what pressure points a saddle may be creating on the horse.
Hoof balance and foot problems
An incorrectly balanced hoof can lead to multiple health issues with your horse. There are many commonly found hoof problems which can lead to lameness. Using thermal imaging technology to scan the hoof and the sole of the horse can be an extremely valuable insight into how the horse is bearing weight and whether they are unbalanced or not. A whole variety of conditions can be seen when looking at a horses hoof including navicular, laminitis and early detection of hoof abscesses.
Nerve damage or injuries
Nerve injuries often due to direct trauma or following another injury will effect blood flow and reduce the heat to certain areas of the body. These can be visually detected using equine thermography so offer a valuable insight in detecting where nerve damage may have occurred.
As many horse owners are well aware, managing their horses teeth and keeping them clean and pain free is vital in ensuring a happy horse. If your horse is showing signs of pain within the mouth (such as quidding) then it is likely to be caused by tooth pain. Thermal imaging is a highly useful technique in detecting tooth pain in horses to pinpoint exactly where the issue is.
The latest and most advised technology used with thermal imaging
Thermal imaging technology was first used within the equine industry in the 1960’s using low-quality imaging technologies; this has now developed into far superior technology widely respected within the professional community.
The latest technologies show an accuracy of +/- 1ºc, are highly portable and incredibly sensitive. They provide high resolution images and specifically developed software for the pet industry.
Understanding your horses injury is key to whether you apply cold or heat therapy. The wrong decision could be detrimental.
The benefit of using thermal imaging technology provides horse owners with a real-life snap shot of what’s going on inside the horse and provides valuable insight into the injury and its most effective form of treatment.
Relatively low in cost, thermal imaging is diagnosis tool now used within the equine world and available to all horse owners.
With thermal technology now as advanced as it is, the technology is now used by specially trained equine therapists who are highly skilled and knowledgeable in what to look out for.
Thermal imaging is a technique now supported by the FDA and many medical communities around the world, to help diagnose various conditions seen in horses, from arthritic pain to splints and ligament injuries.
Spotting equine lameness early is an important trait to have when owning a horse and thermal imaging certainly has a part to play in this too.
Once the injury is fully understood then treatments can then be tailored to create the most optimum treatment for that specific injury and horse.
NOTE: We recommend a number of Thermographers who specialise in equine care so please get in touch if you’d like us to pass their details onto you.
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