Trying to prevent joint problems – or “maintain” joints, as is the common vernacular in some show horse barns – involves giving or injecting one or more of a variety of substances either into the horse (orally, or by injection into the vein or muscle), or directly into the horse’s joints. Substances such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM, PSGAG, or hyaluronoan have been discussed in previous columns.. Suffice it to say that none of these substances have been shown to prevent arthritis, not in horses, nor in any other species.
One particularly pervasive and problematic – from a medical point-of-view – approach to the prevention of joint problems is the so-called “maintenance” joint injection. As such, sport horses may have one or more joints injected with any number of substances (which will be discussed later), on some sort of a schedule in an effort to “maintain” joint health. Under such a rationale, the horse’s joint is approached with the same rationale used to change the oil in the engine of a car. Car engines have a fluid in them (oil) that lubricates the engine, and which needs to be replaced periodically. Why not joints?
In fact, horse joints and car engines make a poor analogy. While both have a lubricating fluid which is necessary for their good health and performance, there are some very important differences.
1. Joints continually produce new joint fluid. Engines don’t.
2. Joint fluid is continually being replaced by the joint. The fluid in engines gets replaced on its own schedule.
3. When you put something into a joint, it’s fairly rapidly removed. The fluid you put in engines stays there, until it wears out.
4. When you put oil in an engine, there’s no risk to the engine. When you put something into a joint, you risk complications such as infections, adverse reactions, and joint bleeding.
5. It costs much less to put oil in an engine than it does to put anything in a horse’s joint.
In fact, there’s absolutely no scientific support for the idea that injecting substances into horse joints is somehow beneficial to their health. If there were, you’d think that the practice would be commonplace in more valuable athletes: humans. That is, if “maintenance” joint injections were necessary – or even helpful – you’d think that basketball players, shortstops, and wide receivers would be lining up for their periodic shots in the knee (or whatever). If your horse needs an injection of a therapeutic substance in his joint, by all means, have the joint injected (by your veterinarian).
No substance delivered through a needle can replace sound management. Making sure that your horse gets regular exercise, maintains a proper body weight, and doesn’t get overworked is more important for joint health than any sort of “joint maintenance” will ever be.