Functional electrical stimulation as a safe and effective treatment for equine epaxial muscle spasms: Clinical evaluations and histochemical morphometry of mitochondria in muscle biopsies

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Barbara Ravara
Valerio Gobbo
Ugo Carraro
Lin Gelbmann
Jamie Pribyl
Sheila Schils *
(*) Corresponding Author:
Sheila Schils |


Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) has been used extensively over several decades to reverse muscle atrophy during rehabilitation for spinal cord injury patients. The benefits of the technology are being expanded into other areas, and FES has been recently utilized for injury rehabilitation and performance enhancement in horses. Six retired horses (age from 10 to 17 yrs) that had been previously used mainly for dressage riding were selected for this study. Clinical evaluation found epaxial muscle spasms in all horses with minimal to no pelvic extension when manually palpated. FES treatments were performed on the sacral/lumbar region 3 times per week for a period of 8 weeks, obtaining a total of 22 treatments per horse. The Modified Ashworth Scale for grading muscle spasms found a one grade improvement after approximately four FES treatments, indicating improved functional movement of the sacral/lumbar region, supporting the evidence by clinical palpations that a reduction in epaxial muscle spasms occurred. Skeletal muscle biopsies Pre and Post FES treatments were obtained from the longissimus lumborum muscle. Cryosections were stained with a Hemotoxylin-Eosin (H-E), and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide tetrazolium reductase reaction (NADH-TR). The eventual size change of the muscle fibers were evaluated by morphometry in the H-E and NADH-TR stained cryosections, while in the NADH-TR slides the histochemical density and distribution of mitochondria were also determined. The main results of the morphometric analyses were: 1) As expected for the type of FES treatment used in this study, only a couple of horses showed significant increases in mean muscle fiber size when Pre- vs Post-FES biopsies were compared; 2) In the older horses, there were sparse (or many in one horse) very atrophic and angulated muscle fibers in both Pre- and Post-FES samples, whose attributes and distribution suggests that they were denervated due to a distal neuropathy; 3) The hypothesis of generalized FES-induced muscle fiber damage during epaxial muscle training is not supported by our data since: 3.1) Denervated muscle fibers were also present in the Pre-FES biopsies and 3.2) Only one horse presented with several long-term denervated muscles fibers Post-FES; 4) Preliminary data indicate an increased density and distribution of mitochondria in Post-FES biopsies, suggesting that the clinical improvements in the FES treated horses may be related to daily increased muscle contraction and perfusion induced by FES training. In conclusion, FES in horses is a safe treatment that provides clinical improvements in equine epaxial muscle spasms.

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Author Biography

Sheila Schils, Equine Rehabilitation LLC, River Falls, Wisconsin

former Professor University of Wisconsin-River Falls

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