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Jan 292013
When treating muscle pain in your horse it is important to consider the whole body, not just the area of pain.

When treating muscle pain in your horse it is important to consider the whole body, not just the area of pain.

The Head Muscles Connect to the Tail Muscles

When dealing with a muscle sore horse, we tend to look at a muscle as a singular part, functioning alone. The reality is muscles, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues throughout the body are directly and  indirectly connected from head to tail through the fascial web.  What effects the movement in one area of the body will affect other soft tissue movement throughout the body.

To complicate matters when dealing with muscle dysfunction the area that is sore or lame is often not the primary problem. Prolonged muscle dysfunction in one area of the body will often show up as tenderness, soreness or lameness in another part of the body.

A horse showing pain and stiffness in the hindquarters may have problematic muscles in the neck, shoulders or withers area. Treating the back and hindquarter might bring temporary relieve, but until the problem in the front end is treated, the pain in the hind end will return.

Understand The Pain Patterns of a Horse

A massage therapist who is experienced working with horses understands the pain patterns. Knowledge of horse anatomy and understanding what muscle groups work together in movement are critical for proper treatment. Equine massage therapist are trained to look at the entire body for muscle dysfunction and trace patterns back to the source of the problem.  It is important when treating muscle pain, to assess the body as a whole functioning unit, not individual parts, to achieve maximum results.

Jan 292013

Note: Stress points should not be confused with acupuncture or acupressure points as they are different systems and treatments.

What Are stress points?

Stress points are tiny micro tears in the fibers that make up a muscle.

What Causes Stress Points?

The formation of a muscle and example of a stress point.

Individual fibers are wrapped together to form a muscle bundles.Muscle bundles are then wrapped together to form a muscle. Tiny tears in muscle fibers cause the development of stress points. Stress points can be found anywhere in the muscle but are mostly found near the connection to the bone.

Injury, chronic pain due to an old injury, repetitive practice of a particular maneuver,  a slip or fall, illness such as colic or upper respiratory infections, even arthritis are a few things that can set in motion the development of stress points. Stress points can develop anytime muscles are stressed and overworked.

Can You Feel A Stress Point?

Yes. Stress points feel hard and rigid in the muscle. At times they are easy to find, feeling like a small marble or BB in the muscle. Other times they are harder to detect, feeling more like a small flat thumbtack in the tissue.  Many times these knots or bumps are located within a ridged band running along the muscle.  A horse will always react by twitching or moving away when pressure is applied to the correct spot. Stress points can develop throughout the length of the muscle, but are most often found near the ends of the muscle, where the muscle turns into tendons which connect to the bone.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Stress Point?

Acute Phase: The first indication of stress point development is localized tenderness with heat and inflammation. If just a few muscle fibers are involved the injury might not be noticed unless direct pressure is applied to the spot where the tearing occurred. The more muscle fibers that are involved the more noticeable the injury. 72 – 96 hours after the initial injury the stress point can often be felt, treated and resolved quickly.

Chronic Phase: If stress points are not treated soon after injury, these tiny muscle knots start to affect the muscle and the surrounding tissues. Other fibers in the muscle begin to tear because they are overloaded picking up the work of the previously injured and now immobile fibers. In time the muscle which was the origin of the injury begins to lose elasticity and mobility. The body begins to compensate, using other muscles in other areas of the body for movement. This sets off a chain reaction. The other muscles become overused, sore, stiffness sets in and lameness may occur. By now the area showing signs of tenderness or lameness is often far removed from the original injury.  During this time the other compensating muscles create stress points which will also require treatment.

Example: your horse gets kicked in chest while turned out with another horse. There is a small area tender to the touch but otherwise he seems fine.  Weeks to months later, the horse is suddenly off in the opposite back hindquarter. Chances are you have completely forgotten about the kick, or dismissed it because it was in the chest. However, it is quite possible that this new problem is due to overwork and strain of opposite back and hindquarter muscles caused by stress points in the chest.

How Are Stress Points Treated?

Stress points must be treated manually. The exact location must be found, pressure applied to relieve the spasm caused by torn fibers, and then friction applied to break up adhesions that were formed when the body restricts movement of the fibers in the healing process.  Once the stress point is properly treated along with other manual therapy techniques and proper exercise to restore muscle and body balance, true healing occurs.

Treating the muscle with heat, cold, laser therapy, ultra-sound therapy and medications will bring temporary relief in many cases. However, these methods address a larger area and do not specifically address stress points. These treatments sometimes relax the stress point but they do not resolve it and they do not address the adhesions.  Both the point and adhesions must be treated to restore full mobility.

Stress Points Are Undetectable In Imaging Processes

It is important to remember that stress points cannot be diagnosed through imaging processes. They do not show on X-rays (which are usually not used for diagnostic purposes for soft tissue injury), ultra-sounds or even MRIs. Why is this? During the natural movement of a muscle, ‘bumps’ occur along the muscle as the individual fibers shorten and lengthen. Stress points and the tiny knots caused by muscle restriction are as of now undetectable through imaging from the normal ‘bumps’ that occur during muscle movement. This is an oversimplified answer to a very complex mechanism, but it allows basic understanding of the process.

Find the Source To Treat the Problem

Stress points are one of the major components overlooked when dealing with a horse with undiagnosed muscle pain. It is natural to be drawn to the location of soreness and lameness and try to fix that area. However when dealing with muscular and soft tissue dysfunction it is important to remember that everything in a body is connected and works together. Always remember, the area that is sore or where lameness is evident, maybe a result, not be the source or cause of the problem. Until the original source is found and treated, the problem will continue.

Jan 292013

Understanding how acute injury and pain can develop into chronic pain is an important factor in determining the source of pain and lameness in your horse.

Acute Injury Pain

acute-compensatory Acute pain is defined as a sudden onset of pain of limited duration usually due to injury. A playful kick or nip by a pasture mate will cause limited area muscle tenderness. A loss of footing resulting in a slip or fall might cause a muscle strain or sprain which results in localized soreness. A horse that has been laid off for a time and is ridden too aggressively will become body sore. Cuts, bruises, muscle strains and sprains are examples of acute injury and pain.

Chronic Muscle Pain

Chronic muscle pain, sometimes called cumulative trauma, or repetitive stress injury, is pain not caused by a recent injury. Chronic muscle pain is often the result of unresolved issues due to a previous injury or illness that happened weeks, months or years earlier.

How Acute Injury Becomes Chronic Muscle Pain

It is often assumed that when an acute muscle injury occurs, once the pain and swelling are gone, it is healed. We now know this is not always true.

When an injury occurs, the body reacts immediately by stabilizing and guarding the injury. One way the body stabilizes the injury is to tighten the muscles and other soft tissues in the surrounding area. This tightening of muscles called splinting helps prevent further damage.  However, during the healing process these muscles often remain short and tight not returning to their normal length.  This causes muscle imbalances which will result in eventual movement and flexibility problems, soreness and lameness.

Short Tight Muscles Vs. Over Stretched Tight Muscles

Every time a muscle contracts (shortens) another muscle or group of muscles must elongate for movement and to maintain body balance. If a muscle remains short, other muscles remain stretched. It is these stretched and elongated muscles that will often start to exhibit the most tenderness or lameness.  A horse that had an injury in the left front quarter weeks or months ago may ‘suddenly’ become sore or lame in the right back hindquarter.  This is due to muscle compensation, the hind quarter muscles picking up the work load of front quarter muscles.  If the  hindquarter is the only symptom treated, the pain and soreness will return and continue to get worse.  The shortened muscles in the left front quarter which resulted from the original injury must be treated for full recovery.

Pain Does Not Always Point To The Problem

It is a difficult concept to grasp, the idea that a painful area may not be the actual problem. Many feel that flies in face of common sense. However, our growing knowledge of body function and advanced technology is allowing better understanding of muscle compensation, its effects and better treatment methods. Treating the symptoms with pain medications or muscle relaxers will not help restore muscle balance, they simply mask the symptoms. The shortened muscles must be found and stress points (muscle knots) manually treated and released. Stretches and exercise must then be implemented to stretch the tightened muscles and strengthen the over stretched muscles. Only when the pain pattern is traced in the body and all muscle groups involved are treated, can full healing and recovery take place.