In human beings, one of the major causes of the joints being restricted in our bodies (most notably the spine) is from the stressful lifestyle we lead. When we are stressed, our muscles go into spasm and shorten, which restricts the vertebrae to which they are attached.
This stress, coupled with our posture and the way we sit and sleep, all has a detrimental effect on the normal movements of our skeleton.
In horses, it is almost fair to say that we are directly responsible for the joint restrictions that they have in their bodies. We take them out their natural environments, put saddles on their backs that don’t fit properly; put metal bars on their feet that alters the biomechanics of the foot; put bits in their mouth that don’t fit properly; isolate them away from their friends by placing them alone in a paddock; and just for good measure, we let them spend most of their lives in their stables – being let out for two to three hours a day in the paddock.
We change them to suite our lifestyle, often to their detriment.
In dogs, the scenario is completely different compared to us humans or to horses. Dogs that have joint restrictions often exhibit signs of intermittent lameness, rear weakness, loss of flexibility, their heads not held vertical, or they have difficulty going up or down stairs.
What sets the dog apart is that the cause of these joint restrictions can often be placed into two distinct categories.
The first cause is trauma. This implies slipping, falling, jumping off the chair and not landing properly, playing too rough with their mate, or any other “accident” that can occur at home or elsewhere. The incident need not be a major event – it can be insignificant and may even go unnoticed.
What to look out for is that there will most likely be a change in the way that they walk or run, for example they may be stiff in the one knee, or if you stand behind them and they walk away from you, the one back leg may swing inwards or outwards, compared to moving in a straight line forwards. They may also have difficulty getting up when lying or sitting down.
If left unattended, the problem often gets worse, influencing other joints of the body.
The second cause is from the birth process. What exactly happens to the puppies in the mother’s womb during conception to cause joint restrictions is unknown to me at this moment. It can be assumed that the muscle contractions on the ill-positioned puppy in the womb can place pressure on the joints and affect their proper alignment.
The birth need not be a difficult one to warrant misalignment in the vertebrae.
What is known is that many dogs out there are suffering from joint restrictions that are a direct result of the birth process. At six months of age the puppies are brought to an animal chiropractor to confirm that their skeletal system is properly aligned. In some puppies marked restrictions are noted at this early stage of their lives in certain segments of the spine. There is no doubt that such severe restrictions have been there for many months, especially with no history of severe trauma – since at so young an age only the birth process or severe trauma could result in such a marked restriction.
What to look out for are hyperactivity or lethargy in the dogs’ behaviour. What is meant by this is the extremes of these two conditions. When the dogs play, one or two just won’t sit still for a second, whereas others might withdraw from the pack and be reserved. You have to compare their behaviour with that of the others – in other words you have to know your litter.
When presenting with such behaviour, the dog normally stands out to the owner like a sore thumb.
Unfortunately in many circumstances, the restricted joints as a result from the birth process do not present themselves in any visible signs that can be detected by the dogs’ behaviour or gait. What I assume happens here is that the body sees these disorders as normal, and learns to work with them. However the joints are not built to work in this newly acquired plane of movement, resulting in the joints becoming restricted, and hence placing stress on other joints of the spine.
In chiropractic terminology this is called compensation. What happens is that because one joint is restricted in its movement, the surrounding joint has to work twice as hard i.e. it has to move for itself and for the restricted joint. The result is an area of hypermobility, where too much movement is present.
In the long term, this condition of hypermobility is more detrimental to the well being to the joints of the body compared to joints that are restricted in their movement. When an area of the spine becomes hypermobile, the body begins to frantically restrict movement to the area, as the laxity can adversely affect the surrounding musculature, ligament and tendons.
At this moment in time it is unclear as to the chronological pattern of how these joint disorders affect the intervertebral disc - i.e. at what stage is the disc adversely affected? Was it when the joint was restricted, or when an area became hypermobile, or is it due to the bodies’ response to the hypermobility that adversely affects the intervertebral disc.
What is clear to the chiropractor is that the intervertebral disc is affected by the changes in the movements of the spines joints. When restricted joints are adjusted, the area of hypermobility stabilizes, and undue pressure is removed from the disc.
At this point it must be stressed that not all dogs that have disc disorders can be helped by chiropractic care, as sometimes the damage to the disc is severe and irreversible.
Furthermore, joint restrictions are most certainly not the only cause to intervertebral disc disorders.
What can be said is that dogs that have had the classical signs and symptoms of intervertebral disc disorders have been assisted by chiropractic care, coupled with regular exercise programmes and medical intervention from the veterinarian.
With the high incidence to disc damage to the canine community, together with their susceptibility to trauma in their day-to-day lives, it cannot be ruled out that chiropractic care can play a part in restoring our dog’s quality of life.