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 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.