Extracorporeal shockwave therapy is turning up more and more at events despite its somewhat controversial reputation. ESWT works by delivering small, directed shockwave blasts to a horse's soft tissue. The strength and frequency of the shockwaves can be adjusted depending on the area of the horse being treated and the amount of energy required. Veterinarians are adopting the method for its therapeutic effects in treating muscle pain in athletic horses. However, there remains some controversy surrounding the procedure, given it is so new and therefore not well-known.
Therapeutic effects of ESWT
Veterinarians first started using ESWT in specialty clinics during the late '90s. However, in the last 15 years, the technology has dispersed to almost every level of horse health care. The machines used to apply ESWT resemble ultrasound machines, with a central energy-generating machine attached to a wand that is applied to the outside of the body. Wand attachments in various sizes can be used to apply shockwaves to everything from the gluteal muscles to the hooves. The force of the shockwaves effectively massage the horse's soft tissue, breaking up hematomas and dulling the nerve receptors to alleviate pain. The treatment is also often used on scar tissue to break it up and relieve any discomfort it may cause. In these applications, ESWT seems to be very beneficial. So much so that veterinarians can routinely be seen applying ESWT to horses at hunter/jumper events.
A controversial treatment
While the effects of the treatment are well-documented, it still is not clear how they come about. The exact process by which shockwaves relieve pain and tension in a horse remains unknown, and thus, some veterinarians are hesitant to embrace it fully. The main controversy seems to come from horse owners that use ESWT to mask the pain that is being caused by a serious problem. Instead of having the horse fully diagnosed, they choose to use ESWT to dull the pain. This puts the horse at risk for a much more serious injury. If you find you are needing to use ESWT regularly, you should begin to question whether or not there is a more serious problem.
Like many horse health treatments, there have already been attempts to regulate the use of ESWT in competitions. The Federation Equestre Internationale forbids any ESWT use up to five days prior to horse inspection, while the United States Equestrian Federation prohibits its use up to three days before competition. The U.S. group does make an exception for back and pelvic treatments performed up to 12 hours before competition.