Is your horse headshaking? A challenge we can help with!

Spring is nearly here, hurray!  However, for those who own a horse that suffers from headshaking, spring can be a time of worry as it is usually in spring when this neurological problem starts or reappears.

From Integravet we want to tell you that this year we are bringing you hope and a help to make this tedious problem more manageable.

There are many reasons why a horse may shake its head. Therefore, we should start with a thorough veterinary examination to eliminate other potential causes of head shaking, such as dental or neck pain or sinus problems and foreign bodies. And when finances permit, x-rays and CT scans to rule out other underlying causes.

However, many times these investigations result inconclusive. 80-100% of these headshaking cases are due to facial pain from the trigeminal nerve, which supplies sensation to the face and nose. Headshaking is shown as an involuntarily, mostly vertical and violent movement of the head often accompanied by signs of nasal irritation.

So, what causes it?

The cause of this trigeminal neuralgia is not fully understood. In normal circumstances, the brain ignores some trivial stimuli in the nose (such as air movement), because the signal is below the pain threshold. In horses suffering from trigeminal-mediated headshaking, this pain threshold is much lower and just the air movement (or any other small stimulus) can trigger a disproportionate pain response.

It can occur at rest but it is usually worse when the horse is exercising and the condition is seasonal in most horses during the spring to autumn period. However, once it has occurred, the headshaking tends to recur every year and unfortunately some animals experience this painful condition all year round. The shakes of the head might be so violent, that riding can become unsafe and many need to be euthanised due to the condition becoming unmanageable, this in turn can cause major welfare issues.

How can I treat it?

The complete cure of the condition is very difficult, and many treatments have a low success rate.

Treatment begins by reducing as many of the trigger factors as possible, especially those involving some type of contact with the nose.

Affected horses should:

  • Wear a nose net and face mask.
  • Exercise avoiding bright sunlight, rain, etc.
  • Be stabled during the day and out at night.

There are many papers in the medical literature reporting the significant pain relief following treatment with Electroacupuncture on people suffering from trigeminal neuralgia (nerve commonly affected in the headshaking). In the recent years a new hospital veterinary treatment called PENS (Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) has shown a good result for treating this condition.

Electroacupuncture can be used to stimulate the nerve in an equivalent manner than PENS and can be done in the horse’s home, it does not require expensive equipment or heavy sedation.

In July 2017 a paper by S. Devereux based on the use of electroacupuncture to treat headshaking was published in Equine Veterinary Education. It can be viewed on-line. This paper concludes that Electroacupuncture on the infraorbital nerve is a well-tolerated and effective management tool that mitigates the pain experienced when suffering trigeminal-mediated headshaking. It allows affected animals to continue their regular work and improve their quality of life. The treatment can be done at home under light sedation.

For further information, please visit www.integravet.com or call 07718 064075.