Daily aches and pains are one of the biggest problems in the horse or equine athlete. The aches and pains are often associated with degenerative joint disease or arthritis, on many levels with resulting cartilage degeneration. Most horse owners resort to traditional joint therapies, including glucosamine and chondroitin, in addition to various pain medications or joint injections to help control pain. Despite these efforts, many are still seeking options to help their horse to get to the next level of comfort. Let’s take a look at what is going on and what other options may be available.
Joint Anatomy and Degeneration in the Horse
The joint is the meeting point of two bones, in which there is motion. The bone ends are covered with articular cartilage which cushions movement and absorbs forces. The joint is enclosed by a capsule of tissue which produces and contains the joint fluid, which both lubricates and nourishes the contained tissues including the cartilage. Joint wear is typical with age in all species but is accelerated by increased wear and abuse. This is common in all athletes, including the horse, and in those individuals performing repetitive movements on a routine basis. As the joint wears, we have a degenerative process that begins in the soft tissue structures of the joint, including the joint capsule, which then progress deeper and begins to impact the cartilage.
Joint degeneration leads to: (in a progressive manner)
- Joint capsule irritation
- Joint capsule thickening or fibrosis
- Decreased production of joint fluid
- Decreased nourishment of the tissues
- Cartilage wear and deterioration
- Cartilage breakdown
- Bone exposure (subchondral bone)
- Bone remodeling with potential spur development
Seeing as how this is a progressive condition, ideally you would intervene at the early stages to gain control of the situation. Unfortunately, most people are more reactive and only intervening at the later stages for their horses. It is just human nature. Generally, at this later stage, bone remodeling has occurred and significant joint dysfunction is present, which can be more difficult to manage.
Joint dysfunction is not a condition that can be cured, but more so one that can be better managed with the goal of reducing the daily aches and pain, but improve mobility, function, and overall quality of life. The earlier you intervene, the better, but in order to obtain the right intervention, you have to understand the process.
Impact of Inflammation on Joint Health in the Horse
Inflammation is an ongoing process that is occurring within all of our bodies, irregardless of the species. It is a fact of life and one of the main reasons that we age and that our bodies begin to breakdown over time. We all think of inflammation as being an obvious entity, which it is in some cases being reflected by pain, swelling, loss of function, heat, and redness. However, in the case of ongoing or uncontrolled chronic inflammation, often the process goes undetected until problems are obvious.
The inflammatory reaction in the body is a result of a high level of release of various signaling proteins (cytokines), free radicals and increased activity of various transcription factors within the cells of our bodies. This reaction is generally perceived as a constant, but the activity is heightened or triggered by a variety of factors including:
- Poor diet
- Environmental Influences
When the inflammatory process goes uncontrolled, various tissues are impacted resulting in increased rates of degeneration in most cases along with cellular changes. The joint is just one of many areas of the body that is impacted directly, which results in negative changes to the joint capsule, cartilage, joint fluid and bone.
Traditional Therapies and Supplements for Joint Degeneration in the Horse
The most common therapies utilized to help support the joints in the horse are supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin. In some supplements, other ingredients such as MSM or even shark cartilage may be used along with various antioxidants.
Glucosamine and chondroitin have been researched for years and heavily utilized in the joint care industry. Both of these ingredients are components of normal joint cartilage and joint fluid, so their end goal use is to help in the repair of damaged tissue. Research has shown some value in these ingredients, helping to improve patient comfort level in both humans and animals, but the results often took up to 6 months in most patients to be visable and the doses required were often up to 4 times the levels utilized in most over the counter products.
The loss of these nutrients in both the joint cartilage and joint fluid is often the result of ongoing inflammation, which not only produces heat within the joint, but leads to increased utilization and decreased production of these nutrients. Through the process of replacement therapy and the supplementation of glucosamine and chondroitin, we are doing a good thing, but we are not addressing the primary problem, which is ongoing inflammation.
Glucosamine and chondroitin type of therapies are good, but often produce much better results from a preventative perspective at an earlier stage. All too often, we seek joint support options at a point where negative changes have already occurred and often bone remodeling is obvious.
Newer Perspectives and Options for Joint Therapy in the Horse
Given that ongoing inflammation is often the root problem, contributing to the daily aches, pains and joint concerns, it makes more sense to address this issue rather than trying to replace what is being lost as a result. This should be our goal, especially in the younger horse entering training and competition.
I often related to the analogy of a pool with a hole that is leaking water. We have two options in order to correct this situation. First, we can just keep replacing the water that is being lost, in the attempt to maintain a certain level OR we can find the hole or source of leakage, seal it, then allow the pool to fill properly.
The same theory applies for overall joint support. We can simply replace nutrients being lost or we can address the main problem (inflammation) in the hope that we can improve overall health to the joint and allow it to regain balance.
Managing Inflammation for Joint Support in the Horse
The concept of inflammation is one that has been heavily researched for many decades with interesting findings. The good news is that we have many natural options in terms of herbs and antioxidants that may help to control the situation and provide benefits for overall health.
These options are many and include:
- Curcumin: The active ingredient in the herb Turmeric which has been shown to reduce the production of several inflammatory proteins and increase the antioxidant levels within cells. This herb is unique in many ways as it has also been demonstrated in research to not only improve patient comfort in cases of joint dysfunction, but Curcumin has also been shown to alter bone remodeling and improve cartilage health, likely through reduction of inflammation. Curcumin is an incredible herb with tremendous health benefits. Read more about Curcumin in this article.
- Boswellia: This herb has also been heavily researched with similar benefits to Curcumin, actively demonstrated to reduce overall inflammation and production of various inflammatory proteins which may contribute to poor tissue health.
- Ashwaghanda: This herb has been researched for anti-anxiety purposes, helping to reduce the impact of elevated cortisol on the body, but it has also been demonstrated to reduce various inflammatory proteins and provide for antioxidant support, which may impact joint health.
- Vitamin C: Ascorbic acid has been researched for years for immune support, but it is also a vital ingredient for collagen production and tissue healing. Collagen is a major component to the joint cartilage, thus is needed for overall repair and health. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, helping to combat free radical damage and higher levels of vitamin C have also been shown to reduce the production of various inflammatory proteins, which may help to reduce joint wear.
- Vitamin E: Tocopherols are important antioxidants that may help to combat free radical damage to tissues, supporting overall health and function
- Omega Fatty Acids: Fatty acids come from many sources and are commonly broken into two categories; Omega-3 and Omega-6. High levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet are generally perceived as ‘pro-inflammatory’, which may contribute to tissue degeneration and wear. Omega-3 fatty acids are generally perceived as more ‘anti-inflammatory’ in their action as higher levels lead to the production of more non-inflammatory type of proteins and also help to provide some antioxidant type of benefits. Sources of omega fatty acids are numerous and include fish oils, flax, olive oils, blue green algae, hemp oil and various nuts.
The impact on the process of inflammation is not restricted to these nutrients, but these appear to be the most commonly researched ones for various reasons. Through the process of addressing and potentially controlling the inflammatory process, patient comfort can often be dramatically improved but is dependent still on the degree of joint deterioration that is present. In many cases, if the inflammatory process is controlled properly through diet and targeted supplementation, often the results are better than those seen with traditional ‘joint supplements’ as one is not just replacing nutrients being lost, but more so directly impacting the process or cause.
The results can be incredible in the horse, but most of these herbs are dose dependent, implying that the proper dosing must be utilized for best health results. Synergism between herbs helps to reduce overall cost, amounts used and can actually enhance the results, but every horse is different.
So, if you are desiring more from your horse joint supplement, considering taking a different strategy. Don’t just replace what is being lost….
Enhance health, improve mobility, improve function and reduce daily aches and pains by supporting a health inflammatory response!
Click here for more information on Horse or Equine Joint injections.
All my best,
Tom Schell, D.V.M.
Nouvelle Research, Inc.