Facial Nerve Injury

Dr. Joyce Harman explains how to heal an injury to a horse's facial nerve in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.
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Question:My 7-month-old colt caught his right hind leg on a log or something, tore a giant hole in his leg under the hock that went to the bone and wound up with stitches and antibiotic shots for 10 days. About three days ago I noticed his upper lip "pointing" to the right. The right side of his face appears tight and the left relaxed. Could it be related to his injury? When he caught himself on the log he did wind up on his back in the deep sand, so I'm wondering if he bonked his head.

Answer: This is not an uncommon injury in horses. Most likely when he had the accident he banged the facial nerve as it crosses a bony area on his head. This type of injury is seen commonly after anesthesia when the horse sleeps on his halter for a long time. What has actually happened is that the nerve on the left side of his face has been damaged, leaving the muscles relaxed and without a good nerve supply. The stronger muscles on the right side pull toward the right, and without any opposing muscles on the left it distorts the lips. This can become a problem when eating, though most horses do quite well.

Nerves can heal, thought they do so quite slowly. If the nerve was severed, it may not come back, but in most cases it is just damaged and has the ability to heal at least in part. To help the healing process along there are several things you can do. Acupuncture, especially electro-acupuncture (where they hook up a mild electrical current to the needles) is one of the best ways to help nerves regenerate and heal. Find an acupuncturist in your area because you will need to follow up with multiple treatments, usually every few weeks for a couple of months or so then less frequently for several more months or longer if the damage was severe. You should see slow but steady progress after the first few sessions.

There are also small electrical stim units available such as a TENS unit. These have little pads you can put around the damaged area, then turn on a mild electrical pulse that will help stimulate the nerve to grow back. Some of these units can be rented from hospital supply places since they are expensive to purchase. If you can find a good equine physical therapist (such as those from Midway College) they can help both with treatments and with guidance for possible treatments you can continue at home.

For nerve injuries, there is also help from the alternative medicine homeopathy. The homeopathic remedy Hypericum 30 is excellent for nerve injuries. This will even help if the injury is older, but not if it is six months or older. Give 6-8 of the little pills once a day for 3-4 days, then about once a week for a month or even six weeks. Since nerves take awhile to heal, the treatment needs to be spread out over time.

TTouch methods from Linda Tellington-Jones are useful for nerve regeneration and healing. Books and tapes are available, and it is easy to learn how to do the touches around the face. Patience and persistence are the keys to healing nerves.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.

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