What is Veterinary Chiropractic?

Back in 1895, a man by the name of D.D. Palmer started the profession of chiropractic. He was interested in physiology and anatomy of the body. In 1895, he met a man that had lost his hearing from being hit in the back, and deduced that if a hit to the back could cause hearing loss, a second hit to the back may restore it. Indeed it did, thus the practice of chiropractic started. As it developed in people in the 1900s, it was also started in animals, but animal chiropractic as we currently know it was not organized until 1986 when the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association was started.

So, what is chiropractic? To understand chiropractic, first we must understand vertebral joints, joint motion, and the idea of a chiropractic subluxation. To make things simple, the vertebrae house the spinal cord which is a pretty important structure. The spinal cord has many nerves that come off of it to the tissues of the body, these nerves have to go between the vertebra through a structure known as the intervertebral foramen (IVF, essentially a hole between the bones). Blood vessels are also present in the IVF to supply nutrients to the spinal cord and tissues. As the IVF is between the vertebrae, it is involved with joint motion. Thus, when the joints do not move as they should we can get interference in nerve function. This is a very basic description of a chiropractic subluxation.

The interference in nerve conduction leads to a decrease in information from the tissue at the area of the subluxation. Specifically, the body loses some of the information needed to guide itself through space. It loses the ability to adequately communicate with that area of the body like talking on a phone with poor reception. This means that the brain loses the ability to adequately respond to the tissues leading to a downhill cascade. This can lead to increases in injuries as stumbling tends to occur, and increasing pain as inflammation continues.

At this point is where the chiropractic adjustment comes in. An adjustment is a force applied to a specific joint in a specific way to help produce motion in the joint and thereby restore normal neurologic function. Given the size of a horse, most people ask how is it possible to move a horse’s vertebrae? First, the vertebrae do not need to move that much (millimeters), second the goal is to move joint tissue.

Adjustments can be painful or irritating to the animal, so horses may kick, may move away or even try to bite. Generally, after a treatment session, most animals are more relaxed for 24 to 48 hours. That being said, some animals feel so much better they tend to be more active, want to play and move around. One might think that exercise after a chiropractic treatment is a bad thing as it may cause the joints to subluxate again. This isn’t the case. We want movement after a treatment so that the body can self-regulate again. Motion helps the joints lubricate themselves, and helps to aid in the ability to stay in motion.

Frequency of chiropractic care is dependent on the animals use, and how long a problem has been present. For an acute issue it may be possible to have a couple of treatments a week apart to resolve a problem. Whereas for something that has been going on for years it could take treatments twice a month for a year to help alleviate some of the problem. Some people like routine chiropractic care once monthly to help a horse stay at the peak of his/her ability. In short, how often chiropractic is performed depends on each individual situation. Adverse side effects from chiropractic in animals, is rare but possible. Most commonly soreness can be seen at the area of adjustment for up to 48 hours. This may cause the animal to walk stiffly.

Most animals benefit from chiropractic care. Currently, it is used in many sports medicine veterinary practices to aid in the care of athletes. This does not mean a trail horse would not benefit from it as well. In general, some of the issues that may respond to chiropractic include toe dragging, roached back, difficulty turning or reduced ability to turn/spin, sore back, girthing issues, head tossing, and difficulty bridling. Obviously, these issues could be related to saddle fit, dental issues, shoeing, and rider biomechanics. Unfortunately, chiropractic is not a cure all just like everything else, it is just one more thing we can do to help our horses perform.

Thank you for reading, let me know if you have any questions,

Heather Elizabeth Nemanic DVM

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