Prevention should be the primary objective when considering long term joint health. However, some circumstances such as poor nutrition and inappropriate exercise management of the young growing horse coupled with the rigors of competition in the adult horse means joint injuries often occur during a horse’s athletic career or in the years after. Damaged joint cartilage initiates a vicious cycle of inflammation and pain, increased inflammatory protein production and further cartilage degeneration. This condition is generally referred to as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.
The owner or the horse’s regular rider plays the first essential role in detecting a joint issue. Routinely checking the horse’s joints will usually pick up the heat and swelling/effusion associated with joint injury. A change in gait is often the first sign noticed by riders, although obvious lameness often indicates the condition has advanced past the initial stages. Anti-inflammatory drugs like bute are often a mainstay of treating musculoskeletal issues, it is important to refrain from treating the horse with them before the vet has had a chance to obtain an accurate evaluation of the condition.
Many horse owners wish to be proactive about dealing with DJD and look to supplements to maintain healthy joints. The purpose of the joint supplement is to stimulate normal activity and function of the membrane which lines the joint and to protect articular cartilage. There are a myriad of joint supplements available which can be given orally but there are questions over whether these molecules are effectively absorbed in the horse’s intestine which translates into wasted money.
Injectable polysulphated glycosaminoglycans such as Pentosan can reduce inflammation in joints mildly affected by osteoarthritis hence delaying the onset of more severe disease and will also help maintain joint health in unaffected competition horses. It is given into the muscle weekly for the initial treatment and can be given once every two or three weeks thereafter. Owners often report a noticeable impact on their horse when comparing their horse’s soundness when on Pentosan versus when they are not receiving treatment.
Of course, many more moderate cases of DJD require more direct medical treatment. For this we may inject drugs such as steroids into the joint space which have a very powerful anti-inflammatory effect. It has also become fairly common to use the horse’s own tissue to create substances which can be injected into an injured joint as another method of managing DJD. One such method we commonly use is called IRAP (Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein) injections which can be produced by harvesting blood from the horse to be treated. The serum from this blood, when prepared properly, is injected into the affected joints to inhibit the proteins which caused inflammation and cartilage degradation.
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