An American researcher is testing a new and simple technique for monitoring the healing progress of injured tendons in horses.
Performance horses commonly suffer injuries to their superficial digital flexor tendons and they often re-injure them after a premature return to competition.
“This is because assessment of how well they’re healing involves too much guesswork,” explains Sabrina Brounts, clinical associate professor of large animal surgery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“We need an objective, quantitative, and non-invasive method.”
In her study, Brounts is trialing a new technique, developed and only available at the university, called acoustoelastography. It uses ultrasound to evaluate the stiffness of tendons.
“Injured and healthy tendons have different levels of stiffness,” Brounts says. “And just like guitar strings, they have different sounds depending on that stiffness, so the sound can be used to determine how well a tendon has healed.”
Horses with acute injuries to their superficial digital flexor tendons will be treated with rest and/or platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP).
Platelets, one of three main types of blood cells, play a major role in blood clotting and repairing connective tissues because they contain many growth factors — proteins and hormones that stimulate cellular growth.
The therapy amplifies this natural healing process by increasing the concentration of platelets in a patient’s plasma.
“We take a sample of blood from the patient and separate the platelets and plasma from the white and red blood cells using a centrifuge,” explains Brounts. “This creates a platelet-rich plasma sample, which is injected back into the patient to enhance healing and recovery.”
Part of the budding field of regenerative medicine, the technique is considered safe and has minimal side-effects because it is derived from the patient’s own body.
The progress of horses in the study will be monitored for six months to a year, and Acoustoelastography will be used every two months to assess the mechanical integrity – the stiffness and strain – of the healing tendons.
Brounts hopes to demonstrate the feasibility of acoustoelastography as a simple, inexpensive tool that can track the recovery progress of injured horse tendons, improve treatment, and help owners make well-informed decisions about returning their animals to competition.
“We’ll also investigate the enhanced healing that PRP can bring to tendon healing, which will benefit both animal and human medicine,” she says.