If you own a performance horse or have ever dealt with lameness, you have likely heard of the words “osteoarthritis” and “joint injury and disease”. This is because the strain of a performance horse’s repeated effort performing movements or clearing fences takes its toll on joints’ synovial fluid and cartilage.
With osteoarthritis, for instance, cartilage degrades faster than it can be rebuild, which in turn causes inflammation in the joint. In addition, the synovial fluid that serves to lubricate and cushion the joint becomes less viscous (it thins). In these cases the pain can come on slowly and subtly until the horse becomes obviously lame or exhibits decreased performance.
When this happens veterinarians often prescribe intra-articular injections. By medicating a horse’s joints they aim to decrease inflammation; restore performance level and protect the existing joint cartilage. This technique will not, however, “cure” joint disease or create new cartilage. Joint injections are the most beneficial joint therapy and provide optimal relief for horses with active inflammation in one or more joints.
Lame horses without active joint inflammation might not improve with injections because the pain source is likely elsewhere in the horse’s body. Veterinarians are quick to point out that owners should not use injections as performance enhancers or to mask pain, but rather to help horses perform their job comfortably and prolong their athletic careers. Joint injections are only part of a much bigger joint management picture that includes rest, proper diet, optimal weight and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug administration.
Proceed with caution
As with most good things, joint injections have their downsides. First and foremost they are costly. The age of the horse and the owner’s performance expectations also come into play (Is it worth the expense if he is nearing retirement or not aiming for a competition goal?). The horse also might not respond to treatment because the pain is located around, and not in, the joint or because the time lapsed from injection to performance is not quite right.
Further, there are some uncommon but potential complications. Anytime you place a needle in a joint there’s a potential for infection, so the veterinarian’s injection method must be sterile. There’s also the chance the horse might develop a joint flare, also called reactive synovitis, a less damaging joint inflammation that occurs following an injection.
However, only 0.1-0.5% on the injected horses suffers from either a joint infection or joint flare.If the veterinarian injects the horse with corticosteroids – potent anti-inflammatories used as joint medications – there is a very small chance this could induce laminitis, but this likely only occurs with extremely high, prolonged doses. Finally, articular cartilage degeneration or thickening of the fibrous joint capsule lining can occur in horses that have received multiple injections in the same area over time and make injections more difficult.