Supporting EPM Recovery with Massage

Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, known as EPM, attacks the horse’s central nervous system and causes inflammation and damage to the brain and/or spinal cord. This damage can cause abnormal gaits, lameness, incordination, stiff or stilted movements, weakness, muscle atrophy, paralysis, loss of sensation, abnormal sweating, difficulty swallowing, difficulty navigating hills or slopes, head tilt and poor balance. EPM is defined as a progressive, degenerative disease and can be fatal.

If you suspect your horse has EPM contact your veterinarian ASAP so they can conduct an examination. Your vet will work with you to pick the best treatment plan for your horse.

How well your horse recovers from EPM depends a lot on how quickly it was treated and what neurological damage it sustained. Horses that had mild symptoms and were treated early have the best prognosis. High stress situations such as shows, a change in living situation, pregnancy or poor nutrition can sometimes cause EPM to flair up again.

Once your horse has completed it’s course of drug treatment, and your veterinarian has cleared it to begin physical activity, you will need to develop a plan for its return to work. Stress, pain and tension will interfere with your horse’s ability to recover and will extend recovery time. To help with this, many veterinarians have begun to incorporate massage therapy into their post medication recovery protocols.

EPM affects each horse differently. It can leave your horse with nerve damage and muscle atrophy causing various degrees of balance or coordination impairment, altered gaits, tripping, numbness or sensitivity, depression, weakness, dysfunction and increased or new asymmetries. Some horses lose their ability to accurately sense where their feet are and need help recovering that awareness to move safely across the ground. Pain caused by EPM lesions may also cause a horse to become grouchy. Exactly how much nerve damage and subsequent muscle weakness your horse has sustained may only become apparent as it returns to work. Your horse’s body will feel and work differently than it would have before it suffered from EPM. This can cause your horse to feel insecure and have unusual reactions. It’s important that your Equine Massage Therapist understands how to safely work with a neurologically compromised horse.

Massage offers a number of benefits to a horse that’s regaining it’s self-awareness, strength, coordination and athleticism after an illness or injury.

Massage techniques with different frequencies, amplitudes and intensities stimulate the mechanoreceptors which sense pressure, stretching, vibrations, temperature, touch and motion. Through this stimulation, additional proprioceptive and kinesthetic information is generated improving self awareness, coordination, and balance for safer movement. (Kinesthesia is awareness of how the body is moving in space or the ability to feel movements of the limbs and body. Proprioception is the awareness of where the body is in space, regardless of how it got into that position).

Massage physically stimulates weak and inactive muscles to bring them back into action, helping your horse regain strength and control and build stronger, more supple muscles.

Massage eases sore, tight muscles and supples fascia and joints for more correct and balanced movement.

Massage increases blood flow to the entire body, bringing nutrients to muscles, improving organ function and skin quality and flushing toxins out to optimize healing and healthy muscle development.

Massage increases the production of mitochondria, the organelles of cells responsible for powering the production of ATP in cellular metabolism. More mitochondria lead to more ATP, which means increased energy to heal. Massage also increases levels of white blood cells which attack viruses and bacteria.

Massage increases the production of cytokines, chemical messengers that work for the immune system to regulate things like fever, pain, and inflammation.

Massage releases endorphins which act as a natural analgesic helping to relieve headaches, myofascial pain, muscle soreness, TMJ, and other pains.

Massage releases happiness chemicals dopamine and serotonin to leave your horse with lasting feelings mental relaxation and improved mood.

Massage releases natural stress relief hormones to shift your horse to its parasympathetic nervous system, the state in which the body is able to relax, digest, repair and heal.

Horses recovering from EPM damage will benefit from Massage along with core building exercises, carefully structured prorioception exercises, somatic exercises and targeted fitness and balance exercises. Some equine massage therapists are well educated in exercise and movement therapy and can help you develop a program that optimizes your horse’s chance of returning to its former activities safely.

Massage is an effective way maximize your horse’s health and fitness and will improve both future resilience to illness and injury and your horse’s ability to return to performance.

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