Tendon injuries are common in horses. Tendons attach muscle to bone and are susceptible to injury. Dr. Sherry Johnson reports in The Horse that injury to the superficial digital flexor tendon is the primary reason for retiring thoroughbred racehorses. The initial tendon injury leads to pain, lameness and a long rehab period but reinjury rates can be as high as 82%, which eventually leads to retirement. Because of this, tendon healing strategies and equine rehab are important in getting these horses healed and back to doing their job.
Tendon injuries commonly cause heat, pain and swelling depending on the tendon. This is usually obvious depending on the tendon’s location. Dr. Johnson says the tendon repair process has three phases and the initial inflammatory phase occurs during the first three days. During this phase, icing of the tendon, rest and anti-inflammatories are recommended. After three days, the repair process occurs and lasts about 28 days, and then remodeling and scar tissue formation begins and lasts up to 60 days post injury.
There are multiple options in treating tendon injuries and using stem cells in the tendon is one option that helps to decrease the reinjury rate. However, controlled exercise and physical therapy still seem to be the most important treatments. Eccentric loading exercises have been shown to be effective and involve lengthening the muscle or tendon fibers during load bearing. An example of an eccentric loading exercise is the withers pull, which involves applying gentle pressure to the side of the withers until the horse shifts their weight and you hold that for five seconds. Your veterinarian can prescribe other types of physical therapy for tendon injuries.