Many people who have been through surgeries and injuries know of the importance of physical rehabilitation, and it is no different in dogs. Physical rehab is a crucial component of the multimodal approach that veterinarians use to treat a variety of injuries and to help slow the progression of arthritis.
Physical rehabilitation is more than just exercise. It includes massage, heat and cold treatments, acupuncture, LASER, and electromagnetic therapy.
Massage and stretching are often used prior to any exercise. It helps to relax dogs prior to their subsequent therapies, improve their flexibility, decrease pain, improve joint stability and increase blood flow to promote healing. This is typically done with the pet lying down on their side with their owner (or veterinarian or technician) manipulating the joints and muscles with their hands.
Cold therapy is a great way to reduce inflammation, especially in the immediate hours and days following an injury, surgery, or arthritis flare-up. This is typically performed with ice packs. Heat therapy, on the other hand, is often implemented in the days after the initial “insult” to help promote blood flow and healing. Warm compresses are often made of either warm towels or store-bought heat packs. In either situation, the heat or cold source should be wrapped to protect the skin from any damage and the pet should never be left alone with a heat or cold pack on.
LASER therapy sends light energy (photons) into the mitochondria of cells, which causes the cells to produce the fuel needed to repair themselves. This allows for tissue to heal faster and more efficiently, all without damaging the cells. Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy is another safe method that delivers a small current to damaged tissue to promote anti-inflammatory mechanisms by enhancing the production of nitric oxide. Acupuncture, which can be enhanced by electrical nerve stimulation, works by placing small needles in specific points to stimulate the nervous system to release chemicals to reduce pain and promote healing.
There are a variety of exercises used in rehabilitation depending on the location and severity of the condition. Some exercises target the balance system in the brain, while other exercises focus on strengthening the muscles around a joint. Most of the time the exercises start off with very low impact (i.e., rising from a sitting position to a standing position) and gradually increase with time. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise if a dog is comfortable with water and many rehabilitation facilities use an underwater treadmill as part of their therapy protocol.
While it is very important to begin physical rehabilitation at a veterinary hospital or rehabilitation center, many methods can eventually be performed at home, but always should be under the direction and advice of a veterinarian. Performing the wrong exercise or performing exercises too quickly can result in further damage and prolong the healing process. Acupuncture is an area that requires a specially trained veterinarian to perform and should not be attempted at home. Your veterinarian can work with you to develop a proper physical rehabilitation plan to help your pet return to normal as quickly and safely as possible.