Keeping the rider's spine in alignment is just as important as keeping the horse's spine in alignment.
Vertebral misalignments can cause problems for the horse and for the rider. Problems that can occur in the rider include sacro-iliac (sacrum + ilium), lumbar, mid-upper thoracic and cervical dysfunctions. This discussion focuses on the sacro-iliac area.
How does a rider incur vertebral misalignments from riding a horse?
Actually, it is more common than one would think. When a rider is taking her horse for a walk, she is sitting flat on the saddle. There is minimal bouncing taking place and minimal lateral movement, but those movements still cause stress upon the spinal vertebral segments. As a rider goes into a trot, canter or especially galloping, that stress placed upon the spine increases exponentially. A rider is no longer sitting flat, but sitting up. This bouncing transfers weight back and forth from the buttocks to the legs. This causes a repetitive stress to the spine that can be extensive, causing repetitive trauma to the lumbar spine and sacro-iliac joint. Also, most riders favor one leg over the other, so more weight is put on that particular leg and subsequent sacro-iliac joint.
How do you know if you have these spinal misalignments?
Various diagnostic tools help determine where misalignments are and how to correct them. The most basic factor is obviously pain. I have seen many riders who have lower back pain, either to the right or left of the mid-line. This is most likely a sacro-iliac joint dysfunction. The sacro-iliac joint is the ?bump? at the top of the buttocks, either on the right or left. Many times, the shifting of the pelvis causes one of the legs to be shorter than the other. When that happens, there are compensations that take place that can cause various problems.
- Self checks: Is the bump tender to touch? Is it hot (indicates inflammation)? Are there muscle spasms around the joint? Is it difficult to lift that particular leg?
- Lie on your stomach with your head down and arms at your side. Have someone else look at your leg length. Is one leg shorter than the other? Is the top of the foot facing straight down, left or right?
- Push your sacro-iliac joint down toward the foot. Does the foot move freely when motioning the joint? Do both feet move instead of just one? Does the foot NOT move when challenging it?
- Leg Length Inequality is a factor in pelvic rotation. If the pelvis moves posterior, the femur moves upward causing a short leg. The body compensates by expanding the muscles on that particular leg. After a while, the sacro-iliac joint goes into spasm, becomes inflamed and causes pain. That pain can be dull, achy and localized, sharp and localized, sharp and radicular (sciatica) and can also cause numbness and tingling (paresthesia).
Another self check:
- Sit on a chair with no back. Rotate to the right and left. Bend forward (flexion) and bend backwards (extension). Do you feel restriction to either side? Is there restriction or pain in flexion or extension? Vertebrae or sacro-iliac joints not in correct motion will cause range of motion restrictions.
- Seek chiropractic care (people rarely go to the chiropractor when they are not in pain).
- The chiropractic examination will include a case history, orthopedic/neurological examination, physical examination and most likely a set of x-rays of the area that is problematic (in this particular case, lumbo-sacral x-rays would be indicated). The orthopedic examination should be able to re-create pain in the sacro-iliac joint that is in question. Static palpation will find tender spots and motion palpation will find lack of motion in the joint. A neurological exam will be done to check reflexes, sensory deficit and motor function. A thorough exam will also check the vertebrae to see if they are also misaligned.
Upon viewing the weight bearing lumbo-sacral x-rays, the chiropractor will rule out any pathology. He will then do a series of line drawings to help diagnose the biomechanical abnormality of the sacro-iliac joint and lumbar vertebrae. The next thing we do in my office is set a course of treatment. To prepare the area of the spine to be adjusted, we apply ice to diminish any inflammation or heat (relaxes the muscles) and use electrical stimulation (to relax the muscles). After that is completed, a gentle, non-forceful, specific spinal adjustment is make to the sacro-iliac joint that is in dysfunction and/or any lumbar vertebrae that need to be adjusted (usually Lumbar 5).
The patient may feel immediate pain relief and an increase in their range of motion. Sometimes it takes a few hours for relief to occur. Visit frequency is determined by the degree (mild, moderate or severe) of pain, how long they have been in pain and the quality of the pain (sharp, dull, localized?) After the sacro-iliac joint is in its correct juxtaposition and motion, and the patient is feeling better, I recommend a treatment regiment of 1-2 times per month to keep the vertebrae in motion and keeping the spine in its correct alignment.
In conclusion, vertebral misalignments are very common in the horse rider. Repetitive trauma to the lower back causes pelvic and vertebral rotation, spasm and inflammation of the muscles and a lack of motion in those joints. Chiropractic care along with physiotherapy relaxes the muscles and aligns the spine to restore the structure of the joints so they can perform their normal functions.
Michael Burak is a human and equine chiropractor. His human practice has been in Huntingdon Valley, PA for over 11 years. He travels to local horse farms to treat equines and is also an adjunct professor at Delaware Valley College. He can be reached at 215-938-6040 or at www.drmikeburak.com