Diode Laser Treatment for Headshaking a Burning Success

California researchers aren't shy when it comes to managing headshaking in horses. According to a case report published in the Nov. 15 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Jeannine Berger, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, and colleagues from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine wielded their trusty infrared diode laser 84 times in the left eye of a horse and 118 times in the right eye to solve his persistent headshaking problem.

Over the course of a few months the patient, a 15-year-old Standardbred gelding used for competitive pleasure driving, developed episodes of side-to-side and up-and-down head flips and a slight head tilt. The signs began approximately one year prior to the horse's referral  to Berger.

"The headshaking occurred only when being driven or wearing the bridle, but not while in the stall, paddock, or when being led on a halter," explained Berger. "The headshaking was so severe that the horse could no longer be driven safely."

Headshaking can be caused by various physical abnormalities, such as light sensitivity, problems associated with the cranial nerves, tooth abnormalities, guttural pouch infections, ear mites, allergic rhinitis, and behavioral issues, among other triggers. As described in a previous story on headshaking on TheHorse.com, veterinarians and behaviorists have tried a plethora of ways to treat headshaking.      

According to Berger, "After an exhaustive physical examination and a battery of tests, cystic corpora nigra were found in both eyes. These are masses of modified iridal (iris) tissue attached at the border of the pupil. They are common in horses and usually do not cause visual problems."

In this case, however, the cystic corpora nigra in combination with a conditioned aversion to wearing blinkers was thought to be the most likely cause of this horse's headshaking.

While anesthetized, the clinicians treated the gelding with the diode laser to deflate and coagulate the cysts. Afterward, they employed behavioral modification techniques to reintroduce the use of the blinkers so the gelding could return to his previous performance level.

This goal was achieved within five months of diagnosing the problem and instituting treatment.

The report, titled, "Successful treatment of headshaking by use of infrared diode laser deflation and coagulation of corpora nigra cysts and behavioral modification in a horse," was co-authored by Berger; Stephanie A. Bell, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM; Bradford J. Holmberg, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVO; and John E. Madigan, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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