Almost all horse people, no matter what riding discipline they choose, universally agree that training and showing can at times push horses to their physical limits.Naturally, with increased physical demands in athletic endeavors, comes increased strain on the body and the potential for injury. To combat this, horse enthusiasts continually seek new ways to help their horses through preventative health measures and cutting-edge therapies. One such therapy is gaining rapid and widespread recognition for having a beneficial effect on horses: Laser Therapy. Download a PDF of this article here.
WHAT IS A LASER? Many of us think of LASERS as a high-tech weapon that is featured in a James Bond movie . . . but in actuality, lasers have been adapted over the years to be able to assist us with everything from relieving muscle soreness to working right beside us in our computer printers. LASER is the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. In plain English? A laser is a device that generates an intense, highly focused beam of light, but it’s different than the light around us in several ways.
The most important difference is that laser light consists of one wavelength while the light around us is composed of many different wavelengths. Another key difference about laser light is that it can be generated at a frequency far higher than our eyes can detect. Lasers are made with different light frequencies with different power outputs. Lasers with high outputs can actually cut and cauterize (burn) tissues, which make them ideal for precision cutting during surgery. In this article, we are going to focus on low-energy output therapeutic lasers.
THERAPEUTIC LASERS. Therapeutic lasers are often termed “cold lasers” or “low-level lasers” mainly because they have a relatively low power output and they usually do not heat up the skin surface. These characteristics make them relatively safe for everyday use. However, there are some risks in using lasers.
The FDA classifies lasers according to the potential hazards that they can present.Therapeutic lasers are classed between class 1 and class 4. Class 4 poses the greatest potential risk, but of course, also shows the most significant potential therapeutic effects. Isn’t this always the case?
Class 3 and 4 lasers are commonly marketed to horse owners. Class 4 lasers will in some cases generate between 10 and 12 watts of power at anywhere between 400 nanometer and 1,200 nanometer wavelengths (600 to 1,100 are most common).
These wavelengths can permit the laser beam to penetrate into the body up to six inches in depth, making them popular for treating musculoskeletal ailments in horses. However, this is not to say that Class 4 lasers are the only ones that a horse owner should consider.
Class 3 lasers, which in most circumstances only penetrate into the skin layers, can be useful for helping wounds to heal, or for use on the lower limbs.
Choosing a laser that has versatility is critical, since different ailments will respond appropriately to different types of laser therapy.
TYPES OF LASERS.
Within the genre of therapeutic lasers, there are cold-wave lasers and cold-pulse lasers. Cold-wave lasers emit a single, uninterrupted light beam at a fixed power output and wavelength. Often termed an “acupuncture laser,” this type of laser is used commonly for that purpose (in place of needles that must be placed by a veterinarian). It is also often used for various skin conditions and wound healing.
Cold-pulse lasers are used when deeper tissue penetration is required (such as with muscle ailments or problems that occur deep into the subcutaneous and muscle layers). This type of therapy involves the laser emitting alternating red and infrared light at high energy output levels for short bursts of time. By alternating pulse types, this laser therapy can successfully penetrate deep into tissues without causing burning to the surface layers of skin.
But what are therapeutic lasers actually doing? Research indicates that in order for tissues to show some type of reaction to laser light, they must receive somewhere between 1 and 5 joules per treatment.
A joule is a unit of energy measurement. Joules can be delivered relatively quickly with powerful class 4 lasers. For instance, the recommended “standard” dose of 1 to 5 joules can be delivered in as little as 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the area treated.
A class 3 laser, which is less powerful than a class 4, can deliver the standard dose, but usually it can’t penetrate as deep into the body tissues and the same dose takes much longer (25 to 35 minutes) to deliver. When applied to the correct location, for the right period of time, with the right energy output, lasers can make a difference:
1. There is strong evidence to suggest that the energy produced by cold-laser therapy is absorbed by the enzymes of damaged cells. These cells then show increased regenerative activities because their mitochondria (aka power factories) increase their activity in response to the energy from the laser. This leads to increased production of healthy cell tissue, which results in improved tissue repair as well as reduced pain and inflammation.
Translation: This can help improve the tensile (load bearing and elastic) strength of, say, an injured tendon or a ligament that receives cold-laser therapy during rehab. Not only can it shorten the time of healing, but it can improve the quality of healing.
2. Laser therapy can improve microcirculation. That means it can help prevent blood from becoming stagnant in the narrow capillary beds of the circulatory system. Improved micro-circulation after laser irradiation promotes accelerated recovery after injury.
For instance, edema in a swollen leg can resolve much faster, bruises can dissipate quicker, and healing can move along at a much faster pace because improved blood flow means that more oxygen and nutrients will be delivered to tissues under repair.
3. Laser light (especially that in wave form) can pierce the tissue at varying depths. Therefore, it can mimic an acupuncture needle. Just like acupuncture, laser therapy has been proven to have a beneficial effect on nerve cells and on the production of beta-endorphins.
Laser acupuncture appeals to horse owners whose horses fear needles, or to those who want to provide more acutherapy to their horses in between acupuncture sessions with the veterinarian.
Laser acupuncture can be successful (if the operator accurately applies the laser beam to an acupoint) in blocking painful stimuli by decreasing the sensitivity at nerve endings. Therefore, anything from a bee sting to arthritis can potentially be helped by laser acupuncture (which of course is also the case with traditional acupuncture).
LASER USE IN HORSES.
There may come a day when the cost of lasers enables them to sit next to the hoof pick in everyone’s brush box. For now, their cost will likely make them not feasible for most horse owners to use on a day-to-day basis. However, for horses recovering from an injury or for folks that are heavily involved in competition, they prove themselves to be a worthy investment or rental.
Laser treatments are painless and simple, as long as you know where to point the laser. It’s similar to holding a flashlight close to your horse’s skin. But finding sore spots may require veterinary help.
In addition, if you plan on using a laser on acupoints, your veterinarian will have to point out the exact location of the points that he or she wants you to work on. The average laser treatment only takes about five to 10 minutes per area, so the use of a laser could easily be integrated into the grooming routine on a daily basis.
Other than avoiding pointing the laser at the eyes, no major adverse reactions with cold-laser therapy have been reported (due to their low-wattage output). Lasers have reportedly been helpful in:
- Improved healing time and quality of tissue repair in wounds or soft-tissue injuries
- Relieving inflammation (pain, heat, swelling/ edema, redness)
- Trigger point/ myofascial and muscle pain relief
- Acupuncture adjunct or in appropriate cases, substitution
- Calming effect
- Improved athletic performance
- Easing back pain
- Assisting sinus drainage
- Increasing the immune response by activating lymphocytes (immune cells).
BOTTOM LINE. Equine laser therapy is gaining momentum as more horse owners report beneficial effects of using therapeutic lasers on their horses. However, lasers are a complicated device, and trying to determine which setting, for which ailment, and what laser to purchase can be an overwhelming task. You will want to work with an expert rather than just go on your own.
To help your horse, a laser must have the right power and tissue penetration capabilities for what you’re treating. It must be used at the right time, at the right exact location, and at the right settings. What to look for in a laser click here.
If you feel that laser may be a therapeutic modality that you want to try in your horse, use safety precautions and do your homework on therapy recommendations.
Article by Contributing Veterinary Editor Grant Miller, DVM.