In every practice, there are baffling cases that defy a traditional diagnostic approach.
Nonspecific lameness concomitant with behavioral problems or a drastic change in demeanor can be difficult to explain. Practitioners
may find it necessary to think outside the box in order to advance an etiology or pathogenesis.
By process of exclusion, one may be able to uncover a clinical picture that slips past even today's sophisticated diagnostic
techniques. Equine fibromyalgia syndrome (EFMS) is one of these diagnostic challenges.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, up to 6 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia syndrome, yet there
are no diagnostic tests to confirm its existence. In humans, symptoms can include muscle aches, painful tendons and ligaments,
gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches, sleep disturbances and fatigue. Theories about the cause or causes range from trauma
to an infectious agent to central nervous system injury to alterations in muscle metabolism.
Diagnosing equine fibromyalgia syndrome
EFMS horses might exhibit autoimmune problems, micro-circulatory deficits, cranial nerve problems, endocrine imbalances, generalized
chronic fatigue or a combination of these conditions. An important fact is that an individual horse or human can have two
or three symptoms or as many as 20.
While most aspects of human fibromyalgia syndrome and EFMS are identical, the equine athlete will demonstrate more extreme
symptoms when an already compromised immune system is stressed during work. Interestingly, in both human and equine syndromes,
a fungal component exists either as a sequela or as a cause of the disease.
Clues to consider
Autoimmune problems run the gamut from immune-mediated arthritis to toxicity to immune-mediated neuritis.
Often, previously injured joints will be most significantly affected, although the horse may exhibit signs of overall body
soreness. Any transient lameness that shifts from fore legs to hind legs or from side to side should be suspect.
Immune-mediated neuritis can manifest itself as stringhalt or shivers or both (analogous to human restless leg syndrome.)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be a component of the autoimmune response, often accompanied by parotid salivary
gland enlargement (swollen glands), an occasional mucous nasal discharge, a non-productive cough, or a combination of these
symptoms. The owner may report seasonal respiratory allergies that come and go.
Deficits in micro-circulation can lead to a multitude of problems, such as muscle deconditioning, hoof problems and skin
infections. The racehorse with advanced EFMS and compromised alveolar function might exhibit exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.
Those individuals already hypersensitive to molds and fungi are prime candidates for developing asthma and COPD. Smooth muscle
deconditioning can cause irritable bowel syndrome, leaky bowel syndrome, and their obvious sequelae (colitis and colic).
The most common cardiac muscle deficiency in humans is mitral valve prolapse; horses will sometimes develop a loud diastolic
murmur with or without left ventricular enlargement. Hoof problems to consider are white line disease, chronic abscesses,
petechial redness in white hoof walls, cracked insensitive laminae, and extreme sensitivity to hard ground. Poor tissue oxygenation
and outward signs of toxicity go hand in hand: abnormal fat deposits at the base of the tail, a potbellied appearance, a dull
greasy hair coat, and chronic fungal skin infections.
Many symptoms involving the cranial nerves get evaluated out of context and, hence, are never effectively treated. Hypersensitivity
to touch (for example, bridles, insects, grooming tools, shampoos, fly sprays) can result in chronic head shyness. Add to
this a hypersensitivity to non-contact stimuli (sound, light), and the stage is set for creating a head-shaker.
Facial red flag
Any suggestion of facial neuritis should be a significant red flag. Horses have the unique ability to use cribbing as a mechanism
for endorphin release and the resulting myofacial pain relief. Evidence of anterior pituitary involvement is abundant. Examples
are extremely high or low estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone levels; excessive sweating; anhidrosis, adrenal exhaustion
syndrome; chronic fatigue; and loss of equilibrium. Stumbling, falling down, difficulty picking up or switching leads at the
canter, tentative gaits over uneven or sloping ground, or difficulty standing still for the blacksmith are common complaints.
The owner might notice the horse struggling to walk up or down the horse trailer ramp.