Conditioning Bones for Wellness, Fracture Prevention

Conditioning Bones for Wellness, Fracture Prevention

Overloading bones before they've been properly conditioned can result in a stress fracture.

Photo: Christopher Riggs, BVSc, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVS , MRCVS

By Christopher Riggs, BVSc, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVS, MRCVS, WEVA Board Member

More than sterile “concrete,” bone is a vibrant, vital tissue that’s densely packed with specialized cells and supplied with a rich network of blood vessels.

In addition to playing a critical role in various metabolic functions (such as controlling calcium), bone protects vital organs, facilitates locomotion, and supports the body against the force of gravity. It is a fascinating engineering material with the ability to monitor itself for fatigue damage and then repair it. Even more remarkable, it is capable of sensing its mechanical environment and then getting bigger, smaller, or altering its internal structure as loads upon it increase, decrease, or change in nature. Imagine a civil engineer designing a bridge using a material that could constantly repair itself and automatically alter its size if traffic flow grew beyond predictions.

Bone’s ability to adapt to changes in loads is a critical feature of the limbs, especially in horses. Horses have evolved to flee in the face of danger: The faster they can run, the better their chance of survival. Bigger bones provide a wide margin of safety between day-to-day loads and fracture risk. However, they require greater effort to lug around, and that could make the difference between escaping a predator and not. So, a mechanism that achieves a balance between optimal strength and minimal weight is highly advantageous.

However, bone adaptation to change in prevailing loads takes time--several months. This is an important consideration when preparing young racehorses for the track: The skeleton needs to be trained to its new workload, just as the cardiovascular system and muscles do. If you move too quickly, the bones will be overloaded. This is one reason why racehorses are prone to stress fractures.

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