Arthritis and Pain

The scene is familiar in our practice: Presented is a middle-aged or older dog or cat who has slowed down, has trouble getting up, seems weak in the rear legs, or who has trouble on tile floors. Like many of us, these pets are suffering from arthritis. Arthritis is a fairly generic term that describes any inflammation in any joint in the body.

Arthritis will strike approximately 65% of dogs over the age of 10. And it’s not just a canine disease: Up to 30% of cats will suffer the pain of arthritis sometime in their life. Arthritis can strike any joint in the body, but the most common places we see it is in the spine, hips, elbows, and knees. In dogs especially, arthritis of the lower spine – called spondylosis – is extremely common, and probably the most common cause of rear limb weakness in older dogs.

Signs of spondylosis include difficulty getting up from a lying position, especially on slick surfaces, muscle wasting in the hips and thighs, dragging the rear feet when walking or trotting, and pain in the lower spine when manipulated.

The Treatment

In the past, the only things we had to treat spondylosis and lower back pain were anti-inflammatories, narcotics and glucosamine. None of these has shown to be adequate in controlling the progressive nature of arthritis, and in some cases can make the condition worse.

Anti-inflammatories are the backbone of arthritis pain control, and they come in two major flavors: either steroids or non-steroids. The steroids used to control arthritis are not the same as the steroids that weight lifters use. Anti-inflammatory steroids are generically referred to as cortisone drugs, and are extremely effective at reducing the inflammation of acute onset arthritis. However, they’re not recommended for long term use, as they cause muscle wasting on their own, and have negative effects on the liver, kidneys, adrenals, and other organs.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, often referred to as NSAIDS for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, can be used long term to control the pain of arthritis. However, they also have some negative side effects, including GI upset or bleeding, and negative effects on the liver and/or kidneys.

And overall, all anti-inflammatories do nothing to help heal the arthritis. They reduce inflammation, and thus pain, but they are not healing tissues. And in many cases, anti-inflammatories can make arthritis worse, as they reduce the body’s ability to heal itself. Until now there was nothing in our arsenal of medications to help make arthritis better, or to help heal tissue.

A Breakthrough in Arthritis Treatment

Laser therapy on a dog's spine
Here, Tess is being treated with the K-Laser for spinal arthritis and back pain.

Cold therapy laser is the newest FDA approved treatment modality to help combat the destructive inflammation of arthritis. Cold therapy laser uses infrared laser beams to stimulate what’s termed as Photobiomodulation, or light-initiated changes in the way that cells react. By applying high power infrared light to the cells in a joint, they are stimulated to actually heal themselves.

High power laser therapy reduces inflammation, decreases pain drastically, increases blood flow to the affected tissues, and actually helps to heal damaged cells. It is not painful for the pet when applied, and results are usually instantaneous and dramatic.

Laser light stimulates cells (thus the Photobiomodulation) to decrease the formation of reactive, or oxidative proteins. It reduces the formation of, and enhances the destruction of free radicals, which damage cells. It stimulates new micro-vascular formation, thus increasing blood supply. It decreases nerve cell potentials, thus making neurons less susceptible to firing and registering pain. So nerve cells that would otherwise be in a heightened, or excited state, and more likely to register pain, are calmed down and the pet is more comfortable immediately.

The best part about laser therapy is that there are virtually no side effects. It can be used in any case, and for many more conditions than just arthritis. In general, anywhere there is inflammation in the body – which is only about 90% of the cases we see – the laser can be used to help heal tissues, decrease inflammation and pain, and speed recovery. It truly is a revolutionary breakthrough in how we treat our cases.

You can read more about the capabilities of our cold therapy laser here. In general, though, for the typical arthritic spine or knee, laser therapy is applied in six sessions of about 10 to 15 minutes each. Usually the pet is treated three times the first week, twice the second week, and once the third week. Treatments are usually done by a technician, so there is no office fee with each treatment, and there is usually no waiting for the treatment since the pet doesn’t have to see the doctor each time. A typical package of six laser treatments costs less than $200.

Not All Lasers Are Equal!

Laser is a new and growing part of the treatment modalities available in veterinary medicine, and you’re likely to hear more and more about them. However, a word of caution is due. All lasers are not created equal. Many of the lasers on the market and in use today are much too underpowered to be effective.

Low-power laser therapy has been around for years. These lasers produce less than one watt of power, and are not nearly powerful enough to penetrate deep tissues. To be effective, a therapy laser must have a minimum of 8 watts of power to penetrate all tissues. There are less than a handful of lasers on the market that are this powerful, and they’re much, much more expensive than their low-power counterparts.

Cold therapy laser on a cat
The K-Laser Cube 4 is the most powerful therapy laser available today.

The laser we use at Acupet Veterinary Care is the K-Laser Cube 4, which is a 15 watt laser. This is the most powerful therapy laser available today in either veterinary or human medicine today. In addition to being the most powerful laser available, it is also the only laser that uses four separate frequencies of laser light to stimulate tissues. Most of the other lasers on the market are either one, or at most two frequency lasers. By using four distinct frequencies the Cube 4 can stimulate different tissues to do different things, and thus produce better results faster.

Laser therapy is truly changing how medical professionals approach medicine, pain control, and healing, and should be considered in any treatment plan where pain and/or inflammation is involved.