Q. What exactly are bone spurs, how do they affect a horse's performance, how common are they, what causes them, and how can I manage them in my performance horse?


A. "Bone spur" is a term used to describe sharp bony projections that are visible on X rays at the joint margins of affected horses. The medical term for these spurs is "osteophytes," and they occur specifically at the margins of joints where the articular cartilage blends into the underlying bone. Osteoarthritis (OA) is a term used for describing a series of changes that occur to joints and their cartilage surfaces leading to what we know as arthritis. As the joint surface (articular cartilage) becomes worn or thins, the body responds by trying to stabilize the joint with the development of bone spurs.

The other area that is often referred to as bone spurs is the attachment of the joint capsule or ligaments around the joint. These spurs are called enthesiophytes. The difference between these two types of spurs is that osteophytes occur at the joint margin and represent the radiographic changes associated with OA, while enthesiophytes occur at the insertion of joint capsules, tendons, and ligaments and represent the radiographic changes associated with tearing of the fibers that attach these structures to the bone.

Equine athletes, just like human athletes, will have two types of orthopedic injuries: Injuries associated with bone and joints (hard tissues), and injuries associated with tendons, ligaments, and cartilage (soft tissues). X rays have been the standard for viewing hard tissues for many years in veterinary medicine. Soft tissues are viewed using ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans. Only recently have MRI and CT scans been used by veterinarians to evaluate orthopedic injuries in horses, and their availability is still very limited.

Therapy for bone spurs is based on whether they are osteophytes associated with OA or enthesiophytes that might or might not be associated with OA. The specific joint associated with bone spurs and the age and use of the horse also influence how the problem is handled. Treatments for OA include corrective shoeing, systemic and topical anti-inflammatory agents, support bandages/ boots, extra-corporeal shock wave therapy, cartilage protectants, and joint injections.

Many equine athletes develop "bone spurs" over the course of their athletic careers. They can impact the horse's ability to perform in its specific sport. The keys to remember are that bone spurs are radiographic findings that are symptomatic of damage and not a specific disease themselves. They can occur as a result of multiple injuries. Treatment is for the underlying cause, and a specific diagnosis is critical to establishing a therapeutic plan.

About the Author

R. Stuart Shoemaker, DVM, Dipl. ACVS

R. Stuart Shoemaker, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, practices in Nampa, Idaho.

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