Too-Common Condition Triggers Paralysis - Especially in This Breed

common trigger paralysis

Story at-a-glance -

  • University researchers tested pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy on a small group of dogs with severe intervertebral disc extrusion (IVDE) injuries
  • The device used was the Assisi Loop, and the treatment lasted six weeks
  • The researchers concluded the therapy reduced incision-associated pain, may reduce the extent of spinal cord injury and may enhance proprioceptive placing
  • The Assisi Loop and other types of physical therapy such as acupuncture, massage, underwater treadmill and specific therapeutic exercises are crucially important in rehabbing patients after treatment or surgery for intervertebral disc injuries

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently, researchers at North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine conducted a small clinical trial using pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy to treat 16 dogs recovering from spinal surgery to address severe intervertebral disc extrusion (IVDE). Their findings, which were promising, were published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.1

What Happens During an IVDE Injury

Intervertebral discs are cushioning pads of fibrocartilage that sit between most of the vertebra of the spinal column. The discs have an outer layer of tough fibrous tissue and a center that is more of a gel-like substance. They act as shock absorbers for the bones called vertebra in the spinal column.

Acute IVDE, also referred to as Hansen Type I intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), involves an explosive release of the gel-like material inside one or more discs into the spinal canal above. The released material bruises and also compresses the spinal cord, resulting in loss of sensation in the legs and the inability to walk. The problem is most often seen in short-legged breeds like the Dachshund.

Breeders who intentionally create dogs with exaggerated physical traits have contributed to the growing problem of spinal cord injuries in certain breeds. The image below on the left is from a 1915 book titled "Dogs of All Nations." The picture on the right is today's poorly bred version of the Dachshund on the left.

dachshund
By: Science and Dogs

Dachshunds a century ago had short but functional legs and necks in proportion to their overall size. Since then, they have been bred for longer backs and necks, jutting chests, and legs so short their bellies barely clear the floor. Doxies have the highest risk of any breed for intervertebral disc disease, which can cause paralysis. They are also prone to dwarfism-related disorders, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and leg problems.

Unfortunately, surgery is often the only treatment in severe cases of IVDE. The procedure involves drilling a hole in the bone above the spinal cord to remove the escaped disc material. This relieves the compression, but doesn't address bruising of the spinal cord. A dog's chances for recovery are largely dependent on the degree of injury to the spinal cord. In dogs with the most severe type of injury, the recovery rate is around 50 percent. Sadly, the other 50 percent remain permanently paralyzed.

Assisi Loops Were Used to Treat Dogs Recovering From IVDE Surgery

The 16 dogs in the NC State clinical trial had complete injury, meaning they couldn't move or feel their back legs. Since studies show that PEMF seems to trigger pathways that reduce inflammation and improve growth factor levels and blood flow, the researchers decided to apply the therapy over the dogs' surgical sites to see if it might alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, improve wound healing and/or help with mobility.

The PEMF devices were Assisi Loops, which I have used in my practice with good success. After surgery, the dogs were put into jackets that held the loops, which were programmed to deliver therapy every two hours for two weeks. Once the dogs were sent home, their owners were told when to turn the loops on and off for another four weeks.

Dogs Receiving PEMF Therapy Had Reduced Pain and Inflammation, and Better Proprioception

To evaluate the dogs' pain levels, the researchers used an algometer, which uses pressure as a pain measure. The dogs wearing the loops were observed to have a 30 percent higher threshold for pressure six weeks post-surgery than the control group.

Both the loop-wearing group and the control group had the same number of dogs who remained paralyzed after surgery. However, the group receiving PEMF therapy showed better proprioception (knowledge of foot placement) and lower markers for injury (less inflammation) than the control group.

The researchers concluded that PEMF therapy reduced incision-associated pain in dogs after surgery for IVDE, may reduce the extent of spinal cord injury and may enhance proprioceptive placing. They caution that their trial was small and larger trials are necessary before concluding PEMF therapy improves neurologic recovery following spinal cord injury in dogs.

I have also used the Assisi Loop to help manage pain and inflammation associated with trauma, injury and age-related degeneration in other species, including cats and rabbits, so the healing benefits are not limited to dogs.

Physical Therapy Is Critically Important for IVDE Patients

In addition to the Assisi Loop, there are other very important therapies that can speed healing and improve your dog's chances of a successful outcome after an acute IVDE injury. Most importantly, it's critical to address the injury immediately. The sooner the injury is medically addressed, the better the outcome. Discuss these adjunctive therapies with your rehab practitioner:

Acupuncture and electroacupuncture can be very beneficial in helping to re-establish the nerve connections in the body.

Massage with or without medical-grade therapeutic essential oils is very good for disc patients as well.

Massage of limbs and axial muscles not directly involved with the site of the injury and passive range of motion exercises can help improve circulation and assist with lymphatic drainage.

Physical rehab technicians are trained to use gentle joint compressions to help maintain patient comfort and reduce pain. Also, these techniques help to maintain limb strength and muscle mass.

Laser therapy at the surgical site or over the area of injury will promote a more rapid healing response, and neuromuscular electrostimulation will help slow muscle atrophy from disuse.

Underwater treadmill therapy or swim therapy is a wonderful tool for helping the body recover from neurologic trauma. As patients continue to improve, a land treadmill enhances endurance and improves gait and movement patterning.

Physio balls and specific therapeutic exercises can improve limb strength and core stability, and Cavaletti poles are very effective for improving proprioceptive input and coordination.

Dogs who undergo rehabilitation after treatment for intervertebral disc injuries heal faster, with a far better long-term outcome than dogs treated with medical or surgical intervention alone.

Unfortunately, IVDD symptoms recur in about 50 percent of pets, especially if they are obese, out of condition or if they're allowed to jump freely. This is why regular physical therapy that focuses on establishing and maintaining core strength and muscle tone reduces the risk of recurrence, and helps keep disc patients' quality of life excellent.