Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy for Horses

Updated March 29, 2024 | By: Andris J. Kaneps, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSR
A veterinarian administering shockwave therapy to a horse's back.
Dr. Andy Kaneps administering shockwave therapy to a horse's back.

Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy (ESWT) is the use of high-energy sound waves focused on a specific area of the body. Consistent with many other therapy tools, shockwave works by stimulating healing. It’s most commonly used to treat soft tissue and bone injuries in horses.

Even though its name might make you think of an electrical jolt, a shockwave actually involves a pressure wave. Shockwaves are intense, short energy impulses that travel faster than the speed of sound and will cause mild discomfort at high energy settings. The term “extracorporeal” means that the shock waves are produced outside of the body.

Shockwaves were first used in humans to break up kidney stones - the pressure waves can be very strong! Although the strength of pressure waves used to treat horses are generally quite small. Many horses are only mildly sedated for shockwave treatments.

How Shockwave Therapy Works

A veterinarian administering shockwave therapy to a horse's neck.
Shockwave therapy being administered to a horse's neck.

Shockwave is an indispensable tool in the therapy arsenal for treating tendon and ligament injuries, back issues, and other orthopedic conditions.

Shockwave increases blood flow and the growth of new blood vessels. It has been shown to increase the production of naturally occurring growth factors, which are essential to healing, as well as stimulating bone formation. It also has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects.

These pressure waves are delivered through a probe focused to a specific depth at the area being treated. In this way, shockwave has diverse abilities as it can treat superficial wounds or tendons close to the skin’s surface as well as deep muscles, bones, and joints.

Since it’s been shown to provide a temporary pain-relieving effect, shockwave treatment on certain areas of the horse before competition is restricted by major equestrian governing bodies (ex. US Equestrian and FEI).

Benefits of Shockwave Therapy for Horses

  • Increases blood flow and the growth of new blood vessels
  • Boosts the production of natural growth factors
  • Generates more collagen fibers in soft tissues
  • Provides temporary analgesic (pain-relieving) effects
  • Increases the number of bone-producing cells (osteoblasts)

How Extracorporeal Shockwave Therapy is Used on Horses

A veterinarian administering shockwave therapy to the suspensory ligament in a horse's front leg.
Shockwave therapy being used to treat a suspensory ligament injury.
  • A veterinarian will adjust the amount of energy produced, the size and depth of the focal area, and the number of impulses delivered per session.
  • Your vet will also decide on the number and frequency of treatments, and they will modify them based on your horse’s response to treatment.
  • Horses often need to be sedated, and the sessions typically last under 30 minutes.

Examples of When Shockwave is Used on Horses

  • As a non-invasive treatment for ligament or tendon injuries. Oftentimes veterinarians will combine shockwave with biological medicine, such as stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma (PRP), for treating a soft tissue injury.
  • Treating lameness in horses with navicular syndrome or osteoarthritis.
  • As a means of helping a horse with back pain or kissing spines.

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.