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Equine Kissing Spine - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

horse running in arena test for kissing spine

Kissing Spine, also known as Baastrup's sign in humans or overriding spinous processes in horses, is an orthopedic disorder that occurs in certain breeds of horses.

In order to understand the disorder and search for appropriate treatments, we need to get familiar with the anatomy of a horse’s back.

horse skeleton can show signs of kissing spine

The vertebral column of the horse has five regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum and caudal. The spine provides support to suspend the weight of the gut, houses and protects the spinal cord, and provides rigidity that enables transfer of moment from rear to front.

The horse has long spine consisting of average 54 vertebrae. These vertebrae are supported by ligaments, tendons and muscles. Kissing spine occurs particularly with the spinous processes on top of the vertebral column. When the spacings between spinous processes become narrow, the horse is higher risk of developing kissing spine. In turn, causing mild to severe back pain and limiting back movement.

As the medicine has progressed with time, there are various new, effective and minimal invasive treatment options available to get your horse in better shape. Let's look further into the signs, causes and treatment options.

Factors Leading to Kissing Spine

There are multiple factors that lead to the developing Kissing Spine. Some of these are:

  • Shorter back horses, like Quarter horses and Andalusian horses, are more prone to develop kissing spines due to having less space and high number of vertebrae.

  • As per research, genetic elements are also a major factor in the development of the kissing spine in offspring.

  • Unprofessional training is also a major cause. When a horse is not trained on how to balance while keeping its head up and arching its back properly, it tends to develop kissing spine disease, especially when the horse is young and is not managing and engaging its core muscles.

  • It can also develop if the horse is trained for prolonged hours under an ill-fitted saddle. This will ruin the horse's posture and cause chronic back pain.

  • Another scenario is if the horse's back is weak, riding on it will press it down furthermore and cause the spinous processes to overlap and press closely, causing immense pain.

  • Wrong and improper techniques of the rider also play a huge part in developing the disease, as the saddle is directly over the thoracic column, putting pressure on it might affect it.

What are the early signs & symptoms of kissing spine?

There are multiple signs and symptoms along with accompanying conditions varying on the cause of disease. Normally, kissing spine disease is pretty asymptomatic; you won't find it till very late, but you can identify it early on if your horse is showing the following signs:

horse skeleton showing kissing spine between vertebrae
  • Expressing pain when wearing a saddle

  • Pushing away when the back is brushed

  • Sudden weight and muscle loss

  • Frequent irritation

  • Avoidant behavior

  • Being unable to stretch or bend due to stiff muscles

  • Cross cantering

  • Sensitive to rearing, preventing jumps, and bucking

  • Hind end lameness and a sore back

Due to improper and prolonged training, horses with a kissing spine will also have or may develop related diseases like

  • Sacroiliac arthritis

  • Cervical vertebral compressive myelopathy

  • Neuroaxonal dystrophy

  • Hindgut ulcers

  • Limited movement due to pain

How is kissing spine diagnosed in horses?

Detection of kissing spine is not very simple. The signs and symptoms are very subtle in the beginning, and in most cases, horses are asymptomatic. It is advised to get your horse examined by a vet to prevent the disease from worsening.

The first step for diagnosing kissing spines is by thoroughly examining the thoracic area, mainly T13-18, to look for certain inflammation, cystic lesions, and bone cysts. Diagnostics, like X-rays, can prove to be one of the best ways to find abnormalities in the spine. Measuring bone density and the distance between the spinous processes are very helpful for initial examination.

x-ray showing kissing spine in horses
Photo credit: Tad Coffin Saddles

The downside or the difficulty with X-rays is that though they show signs of change in the reports, no physical pain is reported. The angles at which X-rays are taken also influence the distance and spacing between the spinous processes, which leads to false diagnoses. Other than X-rays, ultrasound and thermography diagnostics can be used to identify the location of inflammation and areas of concern.

nuclear scintigraphy of horses kissing spine
Photo credit: AZ Equine

Furthermore, nuclear scintigraphy, often known as a bone scan, can assist in the diagnosis. Nuclear scintigraphy involves injecting a radioisotope (radioactive substance) into a vein. This allows the circulatory system to bring the substance to areas that have high blood supply or bone turnover. A Gamma Camera is then placed over the vertebral column to detect inflammation and abnormalities.

While diagnosing kissing spine, all aspects should be considered, and not put all the cards on X-rays.There are also various reasons for back pain, like pinched ligaments, lack of exercise, core muscle movement, pressed nerves, etc., so it should be thoroughly examined to rule out other conditions.

Once the diagnosis is completed, it will be easier to suggest various treatment options to provide your horse back its mobility and remove pain.

Are all breeds affected by kissing spine?

It is noted that racehorses and performance horses are more inclined to develop kissing spines due to rigorous training and prolonged practices under saddle. Most horses develop it but do not show physical symptoms. Short back horses like Baroque horses are also prone to developing kissing spine due to short spacing between spinous processes.

  • Thoroughbreds

  • Quarter Horses

  • Warmbloods

  • Friesian

  • Hunters, jumpers, and event horses

What treatments are available for kissing spine?

After a proper diagnosis, there are various treatment options involving certain surgical treatments, non-invasive and minimal treatments which have shown positive results.

Surgical Treatment

To cure kissing spines, invasive treatments like mesotherapy, interspinous ligament desmotomy and standing wedge ostectomy have shown satisfactory results. These treatments are followed by muscle relaxants medicine like Robaxin and certain joint injections consisting of corticosteroids to reduce pain and inflammation.

Non-surgical Treatments

Pain management and comfortability of the horse is priority if surgery cannot be done. Non-invasive and medically effective options are listed below:

  • Rehab and Physical Therapy

  • Injections (steroids)

  • Shock wave therapy

  • Laser Therapy

  • Medications like Tildren

Red light therapy is also a very effective option for natural pain relief and reducing inflammation.

Is red light therapy effective for equine kissing spine?

Red light therapy being used on a horse with kissing spine

Red light therapy has shown effective results in relieving back pain caused by kissing spine in horses. Red and near infrared light therapy is the use of red light at a certain wavelength, artificially produced by various lamps, lasers and light panels, to help stimulate the body heal naturally.

According to the Department of Horse Breeding and Equestrian Studies, High Intensity Laser Treatment has shown magnificent results in reducing back pain, inflammation, lesions and other musculoskeletal diseases. All 26 horses suffering from some sort of skeletal disorder showed progressive results under light therapy, giving hope to many horses and their owners.

Red light therapy has various beneficial purposes, mainly to improve healing, reducing pain, reducing inflammation, and enhancing circulation. You might be wondering how it works or if it is safe to use, considering these are light waves penetrating the skin.

Poll to Pastern uses LED light diodes to provide safe, non-invasive, no-heat, light therapy. We use the most effective wavelengths for healing. The lights penetrates deep within the skin to the area of discomfort and work their magic. Besides back pain, red light therapy is used for many other ailments, including arthritis, tendon injury, skin conditions, inflammation, tissue repair and so much more!

Schedule your horse a beneficial red light therapy session today! You can also contact us about renting red light therapy pads for healing benefits 3-4 times a day!

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