What is Veterinary Physiotherapy?
Updated: Sep 16
Trying to summarise a 4-year degree to an accessible blog post was a lot harder than I gave it credit for!
On a literal level, Physiotherapy breaks down to “therapy” meaning “treatment of pain and dysfunction” through “Physio” which translates to “movement”. A Veterinary Physiotherapist addresses the animal as a whole, and works to treat injuries directly (along Veterinary Surgeon guidance) with various modalities, and indirectly by training controlled movement in the form of stretches and exercises, to reduce compensations and inefficient movement.
Compensations may have developed from injury, poor conformation or chronic asymmetrical use of the body. These are a problem because the asymmetry that results in the body causes increased load in some areas of the body, and decreased load in others. This asymmetry means excess wear and tear, leading to arthritis or injuries. This is something horsemen and women fight on a constant basis; and something that we Physios do our best to help.
In order to support this quest for free-moving and functioning quadrupeds, us Physiotherapists have acquired in-depth knowledge of anatomy, clinical reasoning, modern research and practical applications of treatments. Within this, knowledge of how the body heals and what treatments are appropriate at different stages is used to maximise the safety and path to successful rehabilitation. There is potential for causing a lot of damage if this is done ineffectively, or in the wrong order, which is why fully-qualified and trained Veterinary Physiotherapists are crucial for your horse’s rehabilitation and performance!
Clinical reasoning is the process of analysing the presented animal’s symptoms, combined with the clinical historyprovided by the vet and owner. Along with some other puzzle pieces, this is used to determine the appropriate treatment plan with its short- and long-term goals.
Part of clinical reasoning is to determine which stage of healing the animal is at. This means ascertaining where the injury is from the following stages:
1. Acute is the initial time period up to approximately 72 hours after an attack on the body. This may be a physical trauma like a kick, or an infection which creates a greater systemic response.
2. Sub-acute is an elusive time between the initial onset of the attack/pain and the acute phase, to the chronic stages indicated by tissue remodelling.
3. Chronic phase can begin anywhere from a few weeks post-initial injury, up to months or even years depending on various factors. This is the remodelling phase of tissues, though it is important to note that not all tissues will ever remodel to their former strength and glory.
Once the above has been established, an initial treatment will be delivered. Depending on the presenting symptoms will determine the use of modalities applied. Modalities available to the Veterinary Physiotherapist include Electrotherapies, Manual therapies, and Prescriptive/Remedial Exercises for the strengthening phase. These will be discussed in greater depth in future articles.
The huge benefit to these treatments is the non-medicated pain relief available from them.
Manual therapies include variations of massage, stretches and myofascial release. These increase circulation and drainage, reduce swelling, relax the animal and importantly offer pain relief… Yes, you riders would benefit from them too, but who am I to tell you to spend money on yourself and NOT your horse! (#beentheredonethat). Stretches are a great strengthening tool for horses, particularly those that are unable to work that much under exercise restrictions. *These should be monitored by a Physiotherapist! *
Electrotherapies vary from muscle stimulation machines, LASERs, Ultrasound machines as well as many other ever-evolving products. These offer pain relief, improved muscle function, tendon and ligament treatment, and many others. Due to the wide-ranging benefits, another blog post is in the pipeline devoted entirely to this topic, so keep an eye out!
These treatments are able to reduce reliance on painkillers, which means reduced risk of liver and kidney damage (and others),and of course, a financial bonus to avoid regular veterinary visits and drug prescriptions. Furthermore, this means that during those hard training days when your horse is feeling that bit more sore, or you’ve been working up to a competition and you can feel them tiring in their body, there is so much support available to them which doesn’t involve drugs*.
*Important disclaimer: Painkillers are effective and necessary, but as advised by your Veterinary surgeon. Veterinary Physiotherapy simply offers a supporting therapy to what is available there
Finally, the strengthening exercises that are available are as limitless as your imagination. Poles, weaving and hill-work could be described as the basic platform for remedial exercises, but the variations are endless, and can be tailored to suit your horse exponentially. This may be for the horse who is learning to use a limb again after nerve damage, or the sports horse who is slightly stiffer in one direction compared to others and requires increased suppleness there. There is no elitism when it comes to improving horse welfare.
A lot of these elements will be discussed in the future, however, if there is something in particular that sounds of interest, please do get in touch! As always, at your beck and call on every social media platform!
Looking forward to hearing from you… And you will be hearing from me this time next week!