Thursday, August 16, 2018

Canine Athlete Injury Prevention beyond Traditional Means: Using Neurophysiology

by Susan E. Davis, PT

There is a little-known technique used by rehabilitation professionals: priming the joints to respond to the unexpected stimulus, using neurophysiology. These techniques use principles utilized in human rehabilitative medicine, yet the veterinary field is just beginning to appreciate their effects for injury treatment and prevention.

Physical Therapy for Dogs - Canine Athlete Injury Prevention beyond Traditional Means: Using Neurophysiology

Neurophysiology? What is that?

The primate human and non-human body uses sensory receptors to monitor external changes--some are considered conscious and others unconscious. Their purpose is to convey information received from the outside world/sensory input, thru the peripheral nerves, into the central nervous system, to determine motor output/get the desired motor response.

They connect to and convey information to tiny small diameter ‘afferent’ mini nerves.

Conscious receptors are in places such as the skin, letting you know when getting burned, bruised.

Overburden protection

Unconscious receptors exist in tendons--Golgi tendon organs, which respond if the maximum or too heavy of a load is placed on that part of the body, causing the muscle and tendon to relax and prevent from being torn.

Unconscious receptors also exist in muscles--muscle spindles, consisting of 3 types responding to quick stretching, bouncing, prolonged static stretching, and maintained stretches at the extremes of range limits. Similar to the Golgi tendon organs, the spindles can help a muscle relax if too much stress placed on it. Other times it helps a weak or partially paralyzed muscle contract if the spindle is stimulated.

Receptors also exist in the joints, and similar to skin, have conscious receptors or proprioceptors to monitor movement and position. Joint receptors are particularly helpful in reducing injury to muscle groups that cross over major joints: such as the biceps brachii in the forelimb, the psoas in the groin and hip, and the quadriceps long rectus femoris, commonly strained in agility sports.

All major articulating joints in the animal’s body also have mechanoreceptors: located in ligaments, capsules, and cartilage. In particular are encapsulated Pacinian corpuscles and Ruffini receptors found at the ends of ligaments, in the capsules, cartilage of major weight-bearing joints including the TMJ/ jaw disc.

The positive aspect of the sensory receptors is protection of the joints and maintaining joint integrity.

We can use this protection to help influence a canine athlete to respond more favorably to stress, strain, force and loads placed on its joints, tendons, and muscles. This will help prevent injury as well as maximize performance.

In contrast, the negative aspect is that the body is designed so that these tiny afferent nerves to which the receptors connect are very sensitive and have a very low firing threshold—kind of like a child that cries easily over spilled milk. If the sensory receptors are not often stimulated, when a stressful movement occurs they cause afferents to get too excited and send out distress pain signals, and the body responds with a chemical inflammatory response.

In training the animal athlete for sports and athletic events, we have to safely push the envelope a little to gain performance yet we want to avoid the chemical inflammatory response as it causes pain and restricts the animal’s movements.

Thus the goal becomes to quiet and reduce excitability, called “de-afferentation” of the sensory receptors in the skin, muscles, tendons, and joints.


There are techniques to persuade, bias, and accustom the body to athletic movement in a safe manner, which decreases the transmission of harmful over-excitability impulses to the afferents. We do this by giving sensory receptor stimulatory input to enable the canine athlete to develop movement strategies to functionally compensate to stress. These activate helpful postural reflexes and protective motor responses that decrease injury to body tissues.

The method used by rehabilitation professionals are as follows:

  • Joint glides and mobilization
  • Manual Traction
  • Joint capsule stretch
The above three techniques require a professional to perform.

  • Manual Approximation/compressions on the animal’s weight-bearing joints weight bearing and non-weight bearing positions, while standing still (static) or while moving (dynamic), on level and uneven surfaces, using treats or toys to attain different head positions, with the eyes covered and uncovered.

  • Perturbations: having the animal jump on/off and land from and to varying heights and surfaces.

  • Vibration boards, wobble boards, balance discs can be used having the animal’s four paws on one device, or having 2 paws on one type of board simultaneously with 2 on other or 2 paws maintaining contact with a non-slippery floor.
The above four techniques can be performed by the pet owner or trainer/handler, though a rehabilitation professional should be consulted first to teach how to correctly apply and for ideas on the specificity of training for a particular sport.

Variations in the use of techniques to stimulate sensory receptors for maximum performance and injury prevention are vast. Your animal rehabilitation professional will be glad to assist you with learning and applying them to help your canine athlete!

Grigg, P, Greenspan BJ: Response of Primate Joint Afferent Neurons to Mechanical Stimulation of Knee Joint. J Neurophysiology 40:1-8, 1977
Grigg, P, Hoffman A: Properties of Ruffini afferents revealed by stress analysis of isolated sections of cat knee capsule. J Neurophysiology 47:41-54, 1982
Cordo P, Carlton L, Bevan Let al: Proprioceptive coordination of movement sequences: role of velocity and position information J Neurophysiology 71:1848-1861, 1994
Bjorklund, Martin, Effects of Repetitive Work on Proprioception and Stretching on Sensory Mechanisms, Dept of Sports Medicine, Umea University, Umea, Sweden 2004
Oliva, Pappa, ViaMuscle, Tendon, Ligament Tear and Proprioception: The Forgotten Sixth Sense, April 2015 OMICS

Articles by PT Sue:
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One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
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The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
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Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
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The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
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Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
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Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
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When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part II) 
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PT Pit Stop: Wheeled Carts Keep Them Doggies Rollin' (Part II)
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Top Dogs and their Toplines at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (Part I) 
Top Dogs and their Toplines at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (Part II) 
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Wound Care 101 (Part I The Basics) 
Wound Care 101 (Part II Wound Management)
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“All or None, or Partial?” (Part 2 of 3 on Cruciate Ligament Tears) 
Full Ligament Tears (Part 3 of series on Cruciate Ligament Tears) 
DIY Physical Therapy for your Ailing or Injured Pet
Basic Dog Anatomy


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program. She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ. Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”. For more information see her website, or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of fantastic books on physical therapy:

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Physical Therapy for Pets


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