Can a Smartphone Help Diagnose Subtle Lamenesses?

Can a Smartphone Help Diagnose Subtle Lamenesses?

Gait analysis applications on a smartphone can give reliable data to help detect hind limb lameness issues in horses.

Photo: Kevin Thompson/The Horse

When it comes to diagnosing lameness, smartphones just got smarter.

Detecting lameness—especially subtle lameness—with the naked eye has always been challenging for owners and veterinarians alike. Fortunately, new technology has made lameness detection easier through gait analysis. The required equipment, though, is expensive, and it’s often found only in referral clinics.

But high-quality gait analysis technology might be at our fingertips … literally.

New research by British scientists has revealed that gait analysis applications on a common smartphone can give reliable data to help detect hind limb lameness issues in horses. All it requires is the phone, the horse, and something to strap it securely to the horse’s hindquarters.

“The application could be, for example, first opinion practice in horses with poor performance issues where it is hard to establish what the underlying cause is,” said Thilo Pfau, PhD, senior lecturer in bioengineering at The Royal Veterinary College (RVC), in Hatfield, United Kingdom.

“The vet could use the phone to get a first idea of whether there is likely an underlying mild hind limb lameness that is involved,” he continued. “Once this is established, it would seem reasonable to either refer that horse to a specialist center with a bit more sophisticated equipment (e.g., a multi-sensor or camera-based system) for lameness diagnosis. Or if the vet owns this equipment, then he or she could use this more expensive kit. So it ends up being a cost-saver for the vet practice, which only needs one of the more sophisticated kits, while the phone could be used for a first opinion.”

In their study, Pfau and Renate Weller, DrMedVet., PhD, MRCVS, MScVetEd, FHEA, professor of comparative biomechanics and imaging at RVC, equipped 20 horses of various ages, sizes, and breeds with both high-grade gait analysis technology equipment and an Apple iPhone 6. They installed the SensorLog app onto the iPhone and set the program to email them the resulting data.

Their team trotted the horses in hand and on the longe in both directions with the equipment attached on their backs, centered just over the sacrum (five fused vertebrae between the lumbar vertebrae and tail). Afterward, the researchers compared data from more than 2,000 strides and found that the iPhone data was very similar to the data from the specialized equipment. Limits of agreement were within acceptable threshold values—meaning they were scientifically valid—especially for in-hand trot work. Range of motion values were actually more reliable with the smartphone when the device was placed slightly to the right of the horse’s midline instead of right on the midline, Pfau said. This is due to the high sensitivity of mediolateral positioning with the SensorLog app.

But what if you’re not an iPhone person? No fear. Apple doesn’t have the monopoly on equine gait analysis, Pfau said. “There are plenty of apps about that let you log sensor data from Android smartphones,” he said. “The thing is that the quality of the data will critically depend on the sensors used. It was simply not feasible to test all different Android phones.

“One thing is clear, though: The newer the phone, the more likely the results will be good,” he added. “Out of experience I can tell you that iPhone 4s and below are not sufficient.”

Regardless of the phone, current technological limitations still mean the data must be sent to an actual computer for analysis. But that doesn’t make the job particularly difficult, Pfau said. “Transfer to the laptop is really easy and can now be done in real time,” he said. “While the horse is trotting, the data is streamed via wireless network to the computer.”

Is this the new future of lameness exams? It could certainly be a part of it—and not just exams but entire rehabilitation programs.

“I think this is a really exciting development,” Pfau said. “Another interesting application (in my view) is rehabilitation where a more frequent gait monitoring can be achieved, since the effort is so minimal. You take your horse, put the phone on, trot it up a couple of times, and bingo.”

That doesn’t mean horse owners can go off and replace their veterinarian with their smartphone, however. “Of course, owners can use this themselves, but more in the context of training regimens, for example, since obviously a diagnosis of the cause of a lameness has to be made by a qualified veterinarian,” Pfau said.

The study, “Comparison of a standalone consumer grade smartphone with a specialist inertial measurement unit for quantification of movement symmetry in the trotting horse,” will appear in an upcoming issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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