By Teri Baughman, Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistant
The handsome fellow enjoying a cup of doggy yogurt in the picture to my right is Chuck, an 11-year-old Australian Shepherd mix.
Chuck’s owner brought him to his local veterinarian in June because the dog was suddenly unable to stand or walk, but didn’t seem to be in any pain. Chuck’s vet performed a neurologic exam and diagnosed him with a probable fibrocartilaginous embolism, or FCE.
Chuck Suffered a 'Spinal Cord Stroke'
An FCE is a blockage in a blood vessel in the spinal cord. It’s often referred to as a spinal cord stroke.
The vertebral column is made up of small bones called vertebrae that are joined together by intervertebral discs. The discs function as cushions between the vertebrae and allow the spine to flex. They are round in shape, fibrous on the outside, and contain a gel-like substance on the inside called the nucleus pulposus.
One of the jobs of the vertebral column is to protect the spinal cord inside it. The spinal cord is similar to a long cable of nerves that sends messages to and from the brain and regulates the body’s reflexes. The spinal cord is fed by a system of blood vessels.
A fibrocartilaginous embolism occurs when a fragment of the nucleus pulposus inside an intervertebral disc escapes into the blood vessel of the spinal cord and causes an obstruction. This affected area of the spinal cord then dies.
Unfortunately, neurologic loss that occurs within the first 24 hours is usually permanent. The good news is the condition isn’t progressive. Any pain usually resolves within 12 to 24 hours. And with immediate treatment, primarily involving very intensive physical therapy, most dogs experience significant recovery.
Signs of a fibrocartilaginous embolism usually appear suddenly and follow a period of exercise or what otherwise seems like a mild injury or trauma. In Chuck’s case, his FCE appeared entirely out of the blue, with no precipitating event.
Chuck’s Treatment Plan
Chuck’s local vet consulted with a neurologist. Unfortunately, without an expensive MRI, a confirming diagnosis couldn’t be made. But based on the classic symptoms he was experiencing, it was agreed an FCE was the most likely cause of Chuck’s paralysis.
Chuck’s vet and the neurologist put together a treatment plan that included an oral steroid to reduce inflammation in the central nervous system, an antibiotic to address a possible acute infection affecting Chuck’s central nervous system, and physical rehabilitation.
Chuck began his rehab program with range-of-motion exercises he did at home, and laser therapy at his local veterinary clinic. Then he came to Therapaw, Dr. Becker’s rehab clinic, to have hydrotherapy sessions with me.
During his first session, I noted that Chuck’s most significant neurologic deficits were in his left front foot. He wasn’t able to flip his foot into a normal position from a knuckled position. I also fitted Chuck with one of my favorite assistance harnesses, the Help Em Up harness, at his first visit.
Chuck in the hydrotherapy tank
Chuck Makes Amazing Progress Right Away
Astonishingly, Chuck’s first session of hydrotherapy made such a dramatic difference in his mobility that he was able to walk into Therapaw for his second session! He was also able to flip his knuckled front left foot to a normal position during his second underwater treadmill session, although he couldn’t yet do it outside the water tank.
Chuck completed a total of eight underwater treadmill therapy sessions and has continued to make impressive progress in his strength, reflexes and endurance with each visit. Chuck is about 80 percent recovered from the effects of the fibrocartilaginous embolism and continues to improve each week.
Chuck’s story demonstrates the tremendous benefit of an early intervention and therapy plan, a collective veterinary effort, and an owner’s desire to do everything possible to improve her dog’s quality of life.
Not only is Chuck still with his family, he’s improving physically and feeling better week-by-week. He’s enjoying each moment of every day… something we’re all thankful for!