Physical Therapy Can Help Pets Suffering From Osteoarthritis
1. What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is the degeneration of joints. The normal joint is made up of bone, cartilage, and soft tissues surrounding the joint, including ligaments, tendons and the joint capsule. Each of these experience changes during osteoarthritis. Cartilage becomes weak and wears down, eventually exposing the sensitive bone underneath. The fluid within the joint becomes thinner, providing less nutrition and joint lubrication leading to further cartilage destruction. Inflammation causes the capsule surrounding the joint to thicken and stiffen, reducing joint flexibility. In most cases, osteoarthritis progresses slowly along a downward spiral of cartilage destruction, inflammation, decreased function, and pain.
2. Why is osteoarthritis painful?
The two main sources of pain in osteoarthritis are the joint capsule and the bone. The joint capsule has many nerve endings on and around it. Inflammation associated with the ongoing joint destruction stimulates these nerves, causing pain. When the joint capsule thickens, it decreases the flexibility of the joint making it hard to move normally. This makes the capsule vulnerable to stretching and tearing, causing pain. In the later stages of osteoarthritis, cartilage destruction causes the underlying bone to be exposed within the joint. This bone has sensitive nerve endings similar to a tooth root. Without the protective covering of the cartilage, these nerve endings are exposed to the inflammatory cells in the joint fluid causing pain. Also, once the protective cartilage is worn off of both joint surfaces, bone ends up grinding against bone, stimulating the nerve endings, causing pain.
3. Are there other causes of pain?
When a joint doesn’t function properly, surrounding soft tissues or other joints have to take up the slack. This leads to compensatory stress on other joints and muscles, which can also cause pain. The most common example of this is a dog with arthritic hips. In order to avoid stretching the painful hip joint, the dog will shift more weight onto the front legs as well as stand with the knee and hock (ankle) at an unnatural angle. This stresses the other joints as well as requires the muscles to work harder.
4. What are the signs of arthritic pain?
Most people are familiar with the signs of osteoarthritis, but may not realize that these signs indicate pain. Lameness, or limping, occurs because the pet is trying to change the way it moves to avoid using the painful leg. Joint stiffness from osteoarthritis makes changing positions from lying down to sitting or standing and vice versa more difficult and painful. Muscles and ligaments around the inflamed joint become stiff during periods of inactivity, causing pain when a pet first begins to move, until they warm up and become more flexible. Many pets with osteoarthritis become more sedentary in order to avoid painful movement. This leads to loss of muscle strength and overall body condition, putting more strain on the joints and muscles when the pet does exercise. Behavioral changes such as avoiding family members or other pets, growling when touched, etc are common indicators of pain.
5. My pet doesn’t act painful, is he?
Dogs and cats are like people, no two are the same. Some are very demonstrative about their pain while others suffer in silence. The gradual onset of the condition can also make recognition of pain more difficult. Cats, in particular, tend to suffer silently. They may just decrease their activity or avoid family members. Sometimes, it’s hard to know if a pet is suffering from pain. A trial treatment with pain medication can be used to determine if the pet acts ‘younger’ and more active.
6. What can be done to reduce my pet’s arthritic pain?
Veterinary medicine has many ways of helping pets live quality lives in spite of their arthritis. In addition to several different types of drugs that control pain and inflammation, physical therapy can help pets delay the onset of arthritic changes and help the pet better compensate when arthritis is present. Physical therapy helps improve or protect muscle mass and strength which helps better support the joints. It also improves and protects the flexibility of joints through massage, stretching and range of motion exercises. Certain modalities can be used to decrease inflammation and pain directly such as cold and heat therapy, therapeutic laser, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, and shockwave thearpy.
7. How do I get started?
A rehabilitation program for arthritic pets starts with a thorough assessment of the pet’s current fitness level and an exam of all of the joints and muscles. An individual therapy plan and goals that are reasonable for both the pet and the client is formulated. Often it includes a combination of medications, supplements, modalities and exercises. The pet’s progress is then tracked and changes to the plan are made as needed.