Sweeney Shoulder (Suprascapular Neuropathy) in Horses

Sweeney Shoulder in horses is recognized by atrophy or “wasting away” of the muscles that are located in the shoulder area. This is caused by damage to the suprascapular nerve that controls the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus and Triceps muscles. This condition may also be caused by a sudden movement or weight change from the front end of the horse to the hind end of the horse: such as in Polo or jumping events.

Over 100 years ago Sweeney was caused by the heavy harnesses that the horses had to wear while pulling carts/buggies, as horses were the primary source of transportation. These harnesses would pinch or bruise the suprascapular nerve against the shoulder blade, causing prolonged and continuous muscle damage.

There are two types of Sweeney shoulder that are commonly seen:

  1. Disuse– This type of Sweeney is caused simply by the horse using their shoulder muscles improperly. Sweeney of this sort could be contracted by a sick horse if they aren’t moving around enough for their specific body type or their muscles are already weakened from an illness.
  2. Neurogenic atrophy (“Wasting away” that originates in the nerve tissues)– This could be from direct impact to the suprascapular nerve or a kick from another horse.

Some other symptoms of this muscle disorder are:

  • Hollowing around the spine of the Scapula
  • Prominence of the Scapular spine
  • Looseness of the shoulder joint (commonly diagnosed as “dislocated” shoulder)
  • Other muscles of the upper leg “wasting” away around the shoulder area. This could cause some toe-dragging and can make the shoulder appear to be “popping” when the horse puts weight on the damaged limb.

Diagnosing this muscle disorder can be performed with radiographs to rule out either a fractured forelimb or shoulder blade.

Sweeney Shoulder – Treatment

Treatment of Sweeney Shoulder is with NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as BUTE for pain management, massage of the affected area to stimulate muscle regeneration or removal of the primary cause of disease. There is a type of Equine massagecalled “Faradism” that involves using a small device to create rhythmic muscle contractions to stimulate muscle growth and strength. Faradism can treat muscles and/or nerves with induced alternating electrical currents to speed up the muscle regeneration process.

Another alternative to these treatments is performing surgery, however, surgery is a very risky option because it involves scraping away the scar tissue on the Scapula, thereby weakening the shoulder’s overall structure. This scraping is said to help improve the forelimb function and mobility for the horse.

Recovery time from Sweeney Shoulder can take anywhere from three to twelve months, depending on the severity of the nerve damage. This will also depend on whether the horse needs to have it surgically corrected or not. They are more at risk after they’ve had this type of surgery because the scapula is more apt to fracture during recovery. The surgery may help with improved mobility for the horse, but because it weakens the shoulder structure there could be extra stress put on the other limbs of the horse. According to Dr. Justin Harper of the Texas Specialty Veterinary Services in Boerne, Texas nearly 80% of horses that are diagnosed with Sweeney recover without having to have surgery.

Even though these treatments may all help, Sweeney Shoulder is still a confusing injury in the equine industry and the treatment that is most efficient and effective depends on that individual horse alone. The best treatment for this injury can be determined with the help of your veterinarian here at River Road Veterinary Clinic. Stop by today or call us at 802-649-3877 to make your appointment today!

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