Vets Assess Back Pain, Vertebral Lesions in Trotting Horses

In a retrospective study of 118 French Trotters, a team of veterinarians found that horses with back pain had more severe and localized lesions identifiable on X ray than horses with no evidence of back pain, but even pain-free horses had lesions of the vertebral column.

According to the researchers, back pain is a major cause of altered gait and performance in horses; however, only a few studies assessing the equine back using radiographs (X rays) have been performed, particularly in Standardbreds.

To investigate the frequency and location of the most common lesions from the 14th thoracic vertebrae (T14) to the third lumbar vertebrae (L3), veterinarians reviewed radiographs from 102 French trotters with back pain and 16 without. The two main anatomic structures of interest were the dorsal spinal processes (DSP, the bony part of the vertebrae extending up from the spinal column) and the synovial intervertebral articulations (SIA, the joints between each of the individual vertebrae along the spinal column).

Key findings reported by the veterinarians were:

  • 10/16 (62%) of the horses in the control group had lesions noted on X ray;
  • 98/102 (96%) horses with back pain had radiological lesions;
  • The number of lesions per horse and the number of affected intervertebral spaces was higher in the horses with back pain;
  • For the different types of DSP lesions, the grade (severity) of the lesions was higher in the horses with back pain compared to the control group;
  • Impingement of the spinous processes was most commonly noted between the fifteenth and eighteenth thoracic vertebrae whereas DSP lesions were more commonly encountered between the seventeenth lumbar vertebrae and the lumbar vertebrae.

The veterinarians noted that there was no significant difference in age, sex, activity, and mean number of race starts or mean earnings at the time of examination between the two groups of horses.

Based on this study, radiographic lesions of the back were less severe and more localized in the painful group than horses without back pain. According to the authors of the report, this survey might "improve the diagnosis and management of racing Standardbreds presented for investigation of back pain."

The study, "Location of radiological lesions of the thoracolumbar column in French trotters with and without signs of back pain," was published in the Jan. 9, 2010, edition of the Veterinary Record. The abstract is available on PubMed.

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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