Inflammation is always talked about as something you need to avoid or control. There is a staggering number of medications, supplements and therapy devices that target inflammation. However, inflammation is an essential part of how your horse’s body functions.
Thermography is used to detect areas of potential inflammation.
Most people define inflammation as pain, swelling and heat but these are the outwardly detectable consequences of inflammation, not inflammation itself. Inflammation is the immune system’s response to infection, injury, foreign/irritating substances and abnormal or dead cells. Even cellular stress that does not cause serious damage will trigger an inflammatory response.
Inflammation can be localized, as in an injury or abscess, or systemic like a viral infection. Inflammation itself triggers release of anti-inflammatory countermeasures and as the cause of the inflammation comes under control, e.g. organisms neutralized or dead tissue cleaned up by scavenger white cells, these anti-inflammatory forces become dominant and the inflammation resolves. Inflammation is also necessary for the release of various growth factors which take over the job of repairing tissues. Without inflammation, these healing messengers would not be released.
Inflammation has a role to play in responses to things other than trauma or infection. When the horse is in training there is ongoing stress to the muscles and joints which results in microscopic damage that is so slight you can’t tell anything is going on. These stressors trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals and in turn growth factors. The ultimate result is bigger and/or stronger muscles and bones.
An important thing to remember about inflammation is that it has to be turned on by some need. There is always a trigger. On a day to day basis inflammation is involved in normal cellular housekeeping like removing cells as they die, repairing minor damage to the intestinal lining or neutralizing irritants in inhaled air. When the job is accomplished, inflammation is turned off again.
What about inflammation causing disease? We hear a lot about that these days in reference to human health conditions. However, even when increased inflammatory activity is clearly associated with something it is never the cause. The real cause is whatever is turning on the inflammatory response.
There is also a lot of talk about diet causing – or curing – inflammation. Despite a lot of theory and hype there is no evidence that things like high omega-6 fatty acid intake can actually cause inflammation. In fact, there is mounting recent evidence that it doesn’t. On the flip side, antiiinflammatory dietary elements like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and trace minerals don’t cure inflammation either but they will provide the body with the raw materials it needs to mount its own normal antiinflammatory activity if any of these nutrients are deficient.
In summary, while inflammation can cause your horse pain and certainly signals there is an issue, it is not the cause of the problem. Once the trigger of the inflammation is removed the inflammation will resolve itself within 72 hours if your horse has a sound diet. The horse then enters a stage of healing that wouldn’t be possible without the inflammatory response.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD