By Eleanor Kellon VDM
The most effective anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-bacteria "drug" around is available to all and it's nearly free. This magic substance is water.
Everyone knows about hydrotherapy, and has used it to some extent at least on themselves if not on their horses. However, even with widespread applications, this treatment must be the most under-used and undervalued therapy.
Cold water therapy is recommended for all injuries, from lacerations to bowed tendons. Surely everyone can remember running cold water over a burn, bee sting or injury to relieve pain symptoms. And cold water does much more.
Pain relief results from immediate decrease in blood flow to the affected area, which helps relieve pain by lowering the pressure on blood vessels. However, the decreased blood flow also blocks the white blood cell release into the area. This eliminates the production of a wide range of chemicals that trigger the inflammatory response of pain, swelling and redness.
The body's inflammatory response is often in excess of the actual damage to the tissues. In some instances, such as insect bites, the body reacts to the presence of foreign proteins in the area more than to the actual bite.
Even when the problem is significant enough to warrant a good inflammatory response (e.g. a sprained tendon), the inflammatory response is often self-perpetuating.
Potent enzymes released into the area for "cleaning up" any damaged tissue are in themselves irritating and the situation can get out of control.
Drug companies have gone to great extents to come up with new and different drugs that will control or eliminate the inflammatory process. These may be specific, such as antihistamines, or may block several stages of the inflammatory response at the same time, as with steroids or anti-prostaglandin drugs such as aspirin or phenylbutazone. But, only cold water can block the response from ever happening.
The timing of cold water therapy is critical. The sooner it is started, the better the results will be. As with a bee sting, if the sting is placed under cold water quickly enough, there is a good chance that the area will never develop the expected pain, swelling and redness. By blocking the superfluous inflammatory cells influx, local reactions are able to take care of the relatively minor injury and resolve it before alerting the immune system - an equivalent of the National Guard. However, waiting until the area is obviously painful, red and swollen before soaking, has a result of less than 100 percent.
The same is true of injuries and lameness in horses. If a horse steps in a gopher hole and twists a fetlock; by immediately running cold water over the area for 10 to 20 minutes (or soaking the lower leg in a water bucket that is checked periodically and kept cool by the addition of more cold water), followed by wrapping the area in a snug bandage and soaking the bandage with cold water, you may discover that there is minimal to no pain or swelling the next morning If nothing is done (possibly because the horse did not show any lameness at the time), the chances are good that the leg will be obviously swollen and somewhat warm and painful the next day. Furthermore, the swelling may prevent an accurate diagnosis of the degree of serious damage to either the tendon, ligament or bone.
Acutely injured areas should be treated with cold hydrotherapy a minimum of three times daily for the first 72 hours. Include hosing or tubing and a cold water bandage in the treatment. If therapy is done properly, minor injuries will be resolved by this time. Any swelling or tenderness that persists should be evaluated by a veterinarian. (Note: Any horse that refuses to put weight on an injured leg after the first hydrotherapy session should be seen immediately by a veterinarian to rule out fracture or serious tendon or ligament damage.)