Tendons and ligaments are specialized forms of connective tissue. Tendons connect muscle to bone. Ligaments are anchored only to bone at each end. Both are composed of interwoven strands of type I collagen protein in a structure much like a rope. They are built to resist stretch but both structures do stretch.
The force experienced by tendons and ligaments is a product of weight and speed
Tendons facilitate movement by pulling on bones when a muscle contracts. Stretching that occurs (e.g. when the fetlock drops during weight bearing) has an effect similar to pulling on a rubber band. When the stretch is released the tendon snaps back to its original length and this assists the pull of the muscle. Ligaments are meant to restrict movement. They are able to dissipate their stretch because they contain strands of elastin, a protein which can deform then resume it’s original shape.
Overstretching can damage any tendon or ligament. Fatigue and working in deep footing are further risk factors, as are toe grabs or overly long toes and shoes with bars or heel extensions which delay breakover. Age and PPID (Cushing’s disease) also weaken these structures.
On the nutritional end, adequate protein in general is needed for connective tissue health and maintenance. The essential amino acid lysine is especially important because strengthening linkages in collagen and cross-links in elastin occur where lysine is located in their structure.
Vitamin C and copper are two nutrients critical to maintaining the integrity and strength of these tissues. Magnesium deficiency has been found to cause a dramatic reduction in the protein content of tendons. Collagen from animals with vitamin E deficiency is deficient in strengthening cross-linkages. Zinc deficiency slows the rate of collagen production. A good broad based supplement that provides these nutrients, many of which are commonly deficient, is an inexpensive and common sense way to support the health of tendon and ligament tissue.
Research has discovered that nitric oxide is critical to processes that maintain the normal integrity of tendons and ligaments under and after stress. This is particularly important for athletic horses. The herb Jiaogulan is potent support for the generation of nitric oxide in pathways that help promote homeostasis and healthy tissue.
Tendons and ligaments also benefit from good old-fashioned hands on care. Exercise is normally accompanied by a degree of inflammation. This is how tissues receive the signal to strengthen their structure and antioxidant defenses. The process is temporary but sometimes causes discomfort, heat and edema.
Simply massaging the area or water therapy with pressure is soothing because it facilitates blood delivery to the tissues. Adding a liniment with the right ingredients can boost the benefits:
- Aloe vera, Chamomile, Arnica and Comfrey are proven to contribute to the homeostatic balancing of inflammatory reactions
- Lavender essential oil gently supports circulation
- Rosemary extract has documented antioxidant properties
Tendons and ligaments play critical roles in the musculoskeletal system. Feed them well and treat them kindly.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD