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Riding horses can reduce low back pain

A new study led by the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) has found that individuals with chronic low back pain may benefit from equine-facilitated therapy (EFT) – a range of treatments involving activities with horses and other equines. Following a three-month intervention, participants reported decreased levels of pain and significant improvements in daily functioning.

The scientists enrolled a cohort of 22 Finish participants in order to evaluate the impact of EFT on level of pain, pain acceptance, perceived physical performance, depression, anxiety, and quality of life. After 12 weeks of therapy, the patients reported statistically significant improvements in reaching and bending forward, standing for a prolonged period of time, and sleep. Moreover, by gradually increasing the exercise load, it was possible to reduce participants’ perceived pain levels, increase their participation in social activities, and improve their overall psychological wellbeing by decreasing their levels of anxiety and depression.

“Chronic back pain is a multidimensional experience involving not only physical pain but also learned thinking patterns and emotional reactions,” said study lead author Sanna Mattila-Rautiainen, a doctoral student in Biomedicine at UEF. “Traditionally, physical therapy has been recommended for the rehabilitation of patients with chronic pain, as physical exercise has been found to be the most effective way to treat spinal pain. Hippocrates already recommended using equine movement as a form of physical and psychological rehabilitation for people, but the exact reason behind the rehabilitative effect has remained unknown thus far.”

According to the researchers, individuals with chronic pain tend to avoid the sensation of pain initiated by moving the affected parts of their bodies. Since incorrect movement maintains a vicious circle of pain, it decreases people’s physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. However, when riding a horse, people will move to the gait of the animal, encouraging the right kind of lumbar movement, particularly for those experiencing low back pain.

Although in Finland EFT is a form of medical intervention that has already been subsidized by the country’s Social Insurance Institution in 2019, it is not yet a fully established method in the rehabilitation of musculoskeletal disorders. By highlighting its benefits for treating low back pain, this study – published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science – is an important step forward in addressing a frequently debilitating condition and thus contributing to public health.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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