When Randall Brandon, DVM, was using laser therapy to treat a sore back in steeplechase racing champ Sunshine Numbers in 2011, he decided to also work the laser on the horse’s neck.
After a while, Dr. Brandon moved the laser back to the horse’s back. The horse immediately let him know what he wanted.
“He backed up and stuck his neck right in my face,” said Brandon, owner of Equine Diagnostics in Sumter, South Carolina.
Sunshine Numbers, the son of Polish Numbers, went on to win the Carolina Cup that year.
Brandon uses laser therapy on a variety of horses, but especially on athletes.
“They get really sore in their necks,” Brandon said. “This is unbelievable for them.”
Depending on size of an affected area, Brandon could use as few as 2,500 joules of output, or for an area as large as 2-feet by 1-foot he might use up to 20,000 joules and take 40 minutes or longer to work the area.
It’s the ability to generate such focused power that has made lasers more useful and the clinical results more apparent in the last few years, and it was the lack of power that helped perpetuate a healthy skepticism about laser therapy when lasers first emerged decades ago, said Ron Riegel, DVM.
Dr. Riegel bought his first laser in 1979 and was unimpressed and largely unconvinced for a number of years. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that he had his eyes opened to the effectiveness of laser therapy.
He was using a laser in 2005 on a jumping horse that had a tear in his superficial digital flexor tendon, with an initial diagnosis that it was a season-ending, if not career-ending, injury.
“Fifteen treatments and 45 days later this tendon was almost completely healed,” Riegel said.
Months later the horse went back to competition at his original level, he added.
“Ninety to 95 percent of the time those are repeatable results,” Riegel said.
Riegel co-founded the American Institute of Medical Laser Applications and has written several books on the subject, including “Laser Therapy for the Equine Athlete,” which he is working on updating, “Laser Therapy in the Companion Animal Practice” and “Clinical Overview and Applications of Class IV Therapy Lasers.”
He said he’s noticed an uptick in interest in lasers lately from the veterinary community.
Since he is considered an expert on the topic, he often gets called to conferences and meetings to speak about laser therapy. Riegel said during four weeks from July through August he gave eight seminars on the topic.
He also said he’s counted more than 2,100 papers on veterinary laser applications from 2010 to present.
“The applications are growing very, very rapidly,” Riegel said.
Lasers can be used to help heal wounds, repair tissue damage, and speed up healing of tendon and ligament damage—Riegel has even used a laser on a horse’s throat to treat a respiratory problem. But laser therapy should be viewed as a complement to overall good veterinary care, he said.
“This is not a magic wand, this is another tool in the toolbox,” he added.