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Pondering Pain

I wish I'd had a pound for every time I'd heard (or seen on social media) someone say "I've had all the physical checks so it must be behavioural", when referring to a behavioural problem. What exactly are "all the physical checks"? A quick once-over from the vet? A 5 star vetting? Checks from vet, saddler and dentist? Checks from vet, saddler and dentist plus additional checks from 2 osteopaths, a chiropractor, 2 healers, acupuncture and a physiotherapist? I'm not being facetious in my last suggestion. Sometimes this is what it takes to find a physical problem that is the underlying cause of something apparently behavioural. I'd go as far as saying that we can never say we have "done all the checks"; until the problem has been solved, there is always a chance there could be a physical cause.

We all have the point at which we waiver though. I must confess that with one of the horses that I trim - or attempt to trim - there had been so many physical checks that his apparent inability to stand for his hind hooves to be trimmed seemed to me to be more likely in need of shaping and behavioural work after all. But after years of trying all manner of professionals to solve the problem, the wonderful owner found a wonderful new osteopath who has indeed apparently found and solved a physical problem that caused him to struggle to hold up his hind legs for trimming. I can now trim all four feet without any issue.

Many (most?) owners would have assumed the issues were behavioural a long time ago and many horses are subjected to pain and fear in all sorts of routine tasks, ridden and unridden. We have never "done all the checks", we have just not found the source of the problem yet. And that is very different.

Pain Expression

I'm in a bit of pain at the moment. Thankfully it will be short-lived and I have already had some professional help at "fixing" it, but it has been interesting to see some changes in my behaviour.

Firstly I am preoccupied. Everything I do, engage in, talk about is through a "filter" of having a sore back. It means I fail to engage fully in what people are saying to me, what my children want from me. I am also irritable for "no apparent reason", although of course it is apparent to me.

Secondly, whenever I move my body I am compensating in some way for the pain. This causes secondary pain in various other parts of my body at different times, depending on what else I have been doing. My children are confused because sometimes I say it's my arm that is sore, sometimes my shoulder, sometimes my back. Of course they are all connected and so they all relate to the same soreness. My inconsistency may even seem like malingering but to me it feels very real.

Thirdly it has changed the sort of social behaviours in which I would normally want to engage. Scratching my horse in his itchy spots, hugging or lifting my children, hugging or "anything" my husband - just urgh, all owwwww.

Weirdly it has also triggered memories of 7 years ago when I had previously had back pain, despite being in a different location, different sort of pain and having had different ways of managing it. I find I am being unnecessarily over-cautious in some ways, protecting myself "just in case" and being reluctant to engage in movements that might hurt, even if I later find that they would have been fine.

In talking to my osteopath I found it hard to communicate exactly what was sore and in what way. And that was when we share a common language. And my first appointment was only 8 days after my initial injury and only 5 days after a day of hoof-trimming worsened everything to the point where I needed help.

I think it is probably clear where I am going with these observations. Horses frequently suffer in silence for much longer and so have many more layers of compensatory pain on top of the original injury. If they are irritable or distracted there is a reason. If they seem sore in random places then they are not "faking it", the pain may well move around depending on the different ways in which they are expected to use their bodies. And a single treatment or check-up will likely not be sufficient to magically remove all the pain, even if (as frequently fails to happen) the correct source of the pain is immediately found. And the memories of the pain may be extremely long-lasting - that doesn't make it any less of a concern to the sentient animal who is experiencing it.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2017