Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Equine Vet and Accelerated Healing Through The Use of Cold Laser Therapy

In the observation of cold laser therapy, it doesn’t seem, in fact, like much is going on. The laser probe is simply held in contact with the skin; chances are, your horse doesn’t notice much either! The probe is attached to a portable base and emits a beam of light (red to near infrared) that’s directed at the problem area — such as a bowed tendon, inflamed joint or post-operative wound. The treatment can be as short as a few minutes or as long as a half an hour, and is repeated anywhere from once a day to once a week, depending on the nature of the condition.
This process is often referred to as low-level or cold laser therapy, because unlike other lasers, these ones don’t produce any heat. Rather than having a thermal effect, the light energy, once absorbed by the tissues, induces chemical reactions that can in turn influence cellular behaviour. Used to treat a variety of musculoskeletal injuries and ailments in the horse, laser therapy is credited by some with accelerating the natural healing processes of the body and relieving pain.
Exactly how therapeutic lasers work is something that is still not completely understood. What scientists do know is that laser irradiation does cause changes at a molecular and cellular level. “The laboratory evidence on cell cultures and animals leaves no doubt that low-level laser can effect cellular communication and physiological processes for the benefit of the patient,” says Michael Hamblin, Principal Investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a fundamental tenet of biology that cells try to protect themselves against stresses if they can — and they have pretty good machinery to both detect stress and protect themselves. It’s thought that a lot of beneficial effects of light come via this route.”
John Kopas, of Milton, Ontario, is one trainer that decided to give cold laser a try after a few treatments helped a filly of his recover from some swelling around her ankle. “I heard about it through a client of mine,” he explains. “I went over to his farm one Saturday and was given a demonstration by a representative of one of the cold laser manufacturers. The rep visited my barn later that morning and we tried it on a filly I was planning to race that coming Monday. She had a little swelling and inflammation in her left front ankle and was hanging on the left line. We treated her Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning. When we raced her Monday night, she was perfect.”
Kopas decided to lease a unit from the manufacturer and has used it a few times since to treat horses with inflammation around their ankles and hocks. “The great thing about the unit I have is that the protocols are all determined by the machine,” he explains. “There’s a card you refer to, and whatever treatment you are going to use, you just punch in the code for it and the prescribed time comes up. It’s actually very easy to use.”
So far, Kopas says he has seen some positive results. “I’ve found that it works very well with soft tissue injuries,” he says. “As far as problems inside the joint, I’m still up in the air, and it may be that it just takes a little longer for that to kick in. I’ll continue with it for a while and incorporate it into the other things we do — like cold hosing and doing them up with leg paint and whatnot.”
While scientists are still hashing out the correct combination of dosage parameters to elicit optimum benefits, no adverse effects of cold laser therapy have been reported. In saying that, the laser should never be pointed directly at the eyes, however, or used on the belly of a pregnant mare. Recent studies have also indicated that the use of cortico-steroids may inhibit beneficial effects of laser therapy.
Mimi Porter, an experienced equine therapist who uses laser therapy on a regular basis in her Lexington, Kentucky, rehabilitation business, also cautions against mistaking symptom relief for a cure. “Laser therapy can reduce pain and tissue swelling, but time is still needed for complete tissue repair and maturation to take place.”
She also stresses the importance of a complete veterinary evaluation and diagnosis before beginning laser therapy, if you choose to do so. “You need to understand the nature and extent of the injury so it can be treated effectively – otherwise you could just be wasting your time and money. Any non-veterinarian therapist offering the service should always work by referral from the vet.”
Finally, both sufficient knowledge and experience are key in getting the maximum bang for your buck out of an alternative treatment like laser therapy. “There are a lot of good tools out there, but it’s important to know what your tool produces and how long it takes to give a dose to a given type of tissue,” says Porter. “If you are in the market for a laser device, make sure the manufacturer is interested in giving you plenty of support in terms of education and training.”
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