The Modern Equine Vet
February 2024
Vol 14 Issue 2 2024
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Cover Story | Orthopedics

Neck Pain: Clinical Exam is The Foundation
The Challenge of Diagnosing Neck Pain

By Marie Rosenthal MS

With a laundry list of presenting signs that are not always clear, even after imaging, diagnosing neck pain is a challenge.

“Therefore, even today with all the advanced imaging and modalities that we have available to us, the clinical examination still becomes the foundation by which we need to look at these horses and decide how we tackle the diagnostic algorithm as we go forward,” said Elizabeth Davidson, DVM, DACVS, DACVSMR, an associate professor of sports medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.

Palpate the entire neck looking for evidence of focal asymmetry, diffuse muscle atrophy, focal muscle atrophy and other issues, remembering that subtle abnormalities may be present. For instance, sweating can suggest trauma within that area.

“Don’t forget to move the mane and forelock out of the way,” Dr. Davidson said at the 69th AAEP Annual Convention, held in San Diego.

“I’m sure everyone has their own way of palpating the neck and that is fine,” Dr. Davidson said. “We should palpate the neck all the time. Gather information about the neck, seeing if there’s a particular area that’s more sensitive than another area.”

She suggested palpating the right and left side simultaneously, which makes it easier to compare the two.

As many veterinarians do, Dr. Davidson uses food to entice the horse to move its neck from side to side and up and down to see its flexibility and the horse’s willingness to move the neck. In one video she showed a horse that turned his entire body toward the food when she was on its right side, rather than just moving his head, indicting the inability or unwillingness to move his head and neck laterally.

“These things may give you clues as to whether or not they can move their neck when you ask them to bend in one particular way,” she said.

One thing to remember, however, is that by asking the horse to move its neck to a particular side means the other side is being simultaneously extended (both sides move), so “it still becomes very challenging to decide which area or side is painful,” she admitted.

“When we do these exercises to assess whether or not horses have mobility in the neck, we still are in essence manipulating and causing movement of the entire top line on these horses,” which can continue to confuse the picture.

An underappreciated part of the physical examination is body movement. Although a dynamic examination is common when limb lameness is suspected, it may not be part of the examination for suspected neck pain, but it should be, she said.

“In my opinion the walk is underappreciated; the gait can give you so much information about how the horse is trying to navigate its environment.”

As they walk look at them from behind as well as on each side. Watch its posture and how it holds its head. Is raised a little too high or too low? Is it bent ever so slightly to one side?

Turning tight circles is typically done during a neurological examination, but it can assess other abnormalities besides proprioceptive and ataxic deficits, she said. Is the neck stiff as it tries to make a circle?

“This is a maneuver that traditionally we use for neurologic assessment, which we can also use when we’re trying to sort out orthopedic problems in these horses,” she said.

Note its unwillingness to move in a certain way, which can be a signal of pain. “Horses are amazingly kind,” Dr. Davidson said. “They try so hard to do what we ask them to do.”

Don’t forget to watch the neck in relation to the rest of the top line.

“The examination continues by assessing horses exercising, with and without a rider,” she said. “We also need to do go beyond the walk and look at these horses when they trot and canter.”

How low does it carry its head and neck? Does it have a hard time maintaining its stride? Does it need more encouragement? Does it rear or bolt, swish its tail? These all can be signs of pain.

Many of the horse’s historical behaviors are challenging, even dangerous to reproduce, but they are important for veterinarians to see which can help pinpoint the problem.

“We add things such as a bridle or side reins or rider to see if we can entice different types of exercising abnormalities that may give us clues about whether or not the horses indeed have problems that potentially might be located within the neck,” she said.

Sometimes the signs are subtle. And it’s important to remember Dr. Sue Dyson’s Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram that comprises a list of behaviors that are more likely to be seen in horses with musculoskeletal pain. For example, abnormal facial expressions and things such as the movement of its ears behind vertical or flat, she suggested, might be signs of pain. A “bad horse” might not have behavior issues; it might be in pain.

“We now know that these types of abnormalities aren’t just bad behaviors. They can be associated with underlying pain conditions with these horses. It’s up to us to be able to identify them, recognize them, and decide where that pain might be coming from.

“A complete physical and clinical examination is so important. It is the foundation, the most important thing by which we go forward with our next step of diagnostics. And some of these maneuvers may help us sort out the abnormalities, the underlying conditions, especially if they have an underlying neck condition.”

The clinical examination is the foundation, but also just the beginning, Dr. Davidson added, pointing to other tests and imaging that may be needed to make a diagnosis.

It can be difficult to separate orthopedic conditions, such as stifle pain or bilateral limb lameness from neck conditions. “A lot of times gait abnormalities are not, at least in my experience, super specific or pathognomonic for neck problems. But we can still use these maneuvers that then allow us to decide if the neck needs to be on our list of differentials and then sort through our next diagnostics,” Dr. Davidson said.

“Horses are good natured creatures, and we have the unbelievable honor to work on them,” she said. It is up to the veterinarian to decide, “What is the information that I can gain by doing different maneuvers, doing specific things to sort out when horses can no longer do their job?” Dr. Davidson said. MeV

Signs of Neck Pain

• Neck stiffness
• Decreased flexibility
• Abnormal head carriage, head tilt
• Resistance to rein tension
• Inability to maintain frame
• Asymmetrical cervical musculature
• Abnormal posture
• Previous fall or collision
• Unilateral forelimb lameness
• Patchy sweating
• Weak or disjointed gait
• Toe drag
• Rearing or bolting
• Refusal to go forward
• Unwilling to work or general laziness
• Lack of connection between front and hind limbs
• Abrupt stops when ridden
• Neck ‘stuck’