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Muscle Issue or Joint Problem?

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

In the performance horse world, joint injections are commonly used to address lameness issues. Most often when a horse has problems in his joints, the condition has developed over time rather than being caused by a sudden impact or slip. How, then, do these problems develop? The answer - and the key to prevention - is the muscles.

Muscles move the joints. Muscles are designed to work in relationship to one another: some muscles work as synergists, others in opposition. Synergistic muscles work together to accomplish a particular action. Opposing muscles balance one another, one activating while the other rests, to accomplish opposite actions. Healthy joints move freely in all of their intended directions, and this requires healthy muscles working in optimal relationship to one another.

When muscles are tight, weak, or not being used in a balanced relationship, they create irregular wear on the joints. Tight, contracted muscles compress the joint spaces, putting pressure on the synovial capsule; over time if the muscle problem continues, the bones may rub on each other creating further joint damage and pain. Weak muscles that aren’t up to the task demanded of them cause recruitment of other muscles to “get the job done.” And when muscles aren’t used in equal relationship to their opposing muscle group, there is uneven pressure/wear on the joints, causing them to wear down more quickly than under normal circumstances. Over the long run, inappropriate muscle activity damages the joints, leading to early breakdown.

Lack of movement is just as harmful as strenuous or repetitive movement. Muscle and joint problems develop (or are worsened) in horses with limited turnout. Muscles are supposed to contract and relax, shorten and lengthen - this keeps them supple, maintains range of motion, and assures proper circulation to carry nutrients into the muscle cells and waste products out. When muscles are not moving the way they are intended, the soft tissues start to harden. If you’ve eaten a Thanksgiving turkey, there is a perfect example of this: all those little “bones” in the drumstick are not bones! They are tendons which have turned into hardened material due to confinement (free-range turkeys do not have this). In nature, a horse moves predominantly in long straight lines - the joints and muscles all are organized to support this type of movement. In a stall, a horse cannot move the way his body was designed to - he cannot take even one stride without turning. This means that joints which are supposed to move as hinges (primary movement being flexion/extension), now are doing none of what they’re supposed to and lots of what they aren’t designed to (rotation and lateral flexion are the predominant directional forces on joints of stalled horses).

Joint problems develop as a RESULT of muscular use patterns: inappropriate or lack of movement causing abnormal wear or stiffness in the joints. By the time joint problems show up, the muscle problems have been going on a long time. These are chronic issues, and do not change with joint injections and a week of light work. Once the damage has been done, joint injections may become necessary to relieve the symptoms of painful joints; however, they do not address the musculature, movement/use patterns, or confinement that cause the joint problem to begin with, nor do they do anything to alleviate muscle soreness. Horse owners are often dismayed to find that, after spending thousands of dollars on joint injections, their horse is still muscle sore or displaying signs of lameness during movement - because the causative factor has not been addressed.

To maintain healthy joints and prevent early breakdown, there are several important things you can do for your horse. 1. Turnout as much as possible so that your horse can move as his body is intended to. Even if he spends most of his day grazing, this is vastly different from being in a stall, and when he does move it will be in larger, straighter lines which are impossible for a stalled horse. 2. Have a qualified bodyworker work with your horse on a regular basis. A good therapist will not only help improve circulation to your horse’s muscles to help them stay healthy and supple, but identify areas of imbalance before they become bigger problems.

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