Study shows benefits of Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) to horses

Dr Sheila Schils at work with a patient using FES.
Dr Sheila Schils at work with a patient using FES.

Human and equine muscle specialists have collaborated on a research project which showed the use of Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) can have significant benefits to recovery and function at a cellular level in performance horses.

Lead researcher Sheila Schils, MS, PhD., from Florida’s Wellington Equine Sports Medicine and the president of Equinew in the US, said the results from the study showed that using FES in horses resulted in a significant improvement in the density and distribution of mitochondria.

“When the muscle has a higher number of mitochondria, and these mitochondria are placed in the most advantageous area of the muscle cells, the muscle can utilize oxygen much more effectively. Therefore, the muscle can do its job better,” Schils said.

An interdisciplinary team of human and equine researchers, all of whom specialize in muscle cell function and the clinical use of FES, collaborated on the project. Ugo Carraro, MD, from the IRRCS Fondazione Ospedale San Camilllo in Venice, Italy, one of the premier researchers in human muscle histology, took part in the study along with Helmut Kern, MD, who uses FES for spinal cord injuries at his medical clinic in Vienna, Austria.

The results have been published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science.

“This is a landmark project which continues to advance our understanding of muscle function, specifically with the use of FES,” Carraro said.

Kern added: “We know the clinical benefits of FES for use to retard muscle atrophy and spasms. This research helps us to better understand the multiple benefits of the FES technology.”

Many equine practitioners in the United States and Europe are using FES in equine rehabilitation and for performance enhancement.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) has been shown to improve muscle function.
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) has been shown to improve muscle function in horses.

This new research adds to the understanding of what is occurring at the cellular level. FES is especially effective in equine rehabilitation due to its ability to reach 6 to 8 inches below the surface of the skin to stimulate the deep muscle, tendon and ligament tissues of the horse. This depth of activity has been validated through ultrasound videos during FES treatment, and activating the deep core muscles is of great value when dealing with spinal and pelvic problems of the horse.

In addition, the FES signal feels comfortable due to the ability of the technology to closely mimic true muscle movement, so the horse remains compliant to the treatments without the need for a tranquilizer.

“We not only saw the improvements in muscle function under the microscope, but we also saw clinical improvements in the reduction of muscle spasms in the backs of the horses studied,” Schils said. “It has taken some time to develop the appropriate protocols for the use of FES in horses, and these results show that we are on the right track.”

Carraro said the team was looking at future research projects to continue the focus on the benefits of FES in equine and human practice.

At Wellington Equine Sports Medicine, Schils works in conjunction with equine veterinarians Anne Moretta, VMD, MS, and Suzan Oakley DVM., Diplomate ABVP (Equine), a certified member of The International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology (ISELP).

Functional Electrical Stimulation for Equine Muscle Hypertonicity: Histological Changes in Mitochondrial Density and Distribution, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Sheila Schils, Ugo Carraro, Tracy Turner, Barbara Ravara, Valerio Gobbo, Helmut Kern, Lin Gelbmann, Jamie Pribyl.

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