Horse-assisted Therapy Appears to Improve Balance in People With Multiple Sclerosis

Study determines Hippotherapy is low-risk and provides dynamic changes in the rider's balance, posture, and proprioceptive input.

By Bill Benda, MD

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Reference

Bronson C, Brewerton K, Ong J, Palanca C, Sullivan SJ. Does hippotherapy improve balance in persons with multiple sclerosis: a systematic review. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2010;46:347-353.

Design

Systematic review of the literature

Study methodologies: Case control or case series

Background

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease resulting from progressive demyelination of axons within the central nervous system.1 Clinical symptoms include functional impairment of motor function and strength, sensory loss, and interference with coordination and balance. Symptom may vary from patient to patient, and the disease may be relapsing and remitting or progressive. Given the wide variety of clinical presentations, a variety of treatments are available, with the primary goal of improving balance when engaged in daily activities. Exercise training has been shown to be a valid strategy in this regard.2,3

Hippotherapy refers to a systematic program of physical therapy on horseback under the direction of a certified hippotherapy specialist who is also a licensed physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech and language therapist. It utilizes the movement of the horse to provide continual dynamic changes in the rider’s balance, posture, and proprioceptive input, resulting in moment-by-moment compensatory motor responses that eventually retrain the neuromuscular system.4,5

Hippotherapy has been utilized as a therapeutic intervention for a number of neurologic conditions, including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and MS.

Hippotherapy has been utilized as a therapeutic intervention for a number of neurologic conditions, including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and MS.

Materials and methods

The specific research question for this systematic review was “Does hippotherapy as an intervention improve balance in persons with MS”? The authors searched the databases of MDLIN, AMED, EMBASE, ERIC, Scopus, ISI Web of Science, CINAHL, PsychINFO, Science Direct, and PEDro in 2009 using the terms: hippotherapy, horse, riding, horseback riding, horseback riding therapy, equine movement therapy, equine assisted therapy, therapeutic riding, AND balance, postural balance, equilibrium, posture, postural reactions, postural sway, dynamic balance, AND multiple sclerosis. Only full-length articles written in English or translated into English were included due to limited access to translation facilities.

Results

Out of 13 articles generated related to hippotherapy, balance, and MS, 3 met the inclusion criteria and were assessed. The mean time and duration for the hippotherapy intervention was 7.75 hours (range 5.0–13.5) over 11.2 weeks (range 9–14) respectively, and interventions were completed both outdoors and indoors. Collectively all 3 studies reported improvements in balance, with 1 study suggesting greatest improvement in patients with primary progressive MS when compared to other subtypes of the illness. Study limitations included very small sample sizes, as well as lack of random selection of subjects, which is important due to the variable nature of MS.

Discussion

Published research in the fields of animal-assisted therapy, equine-assisted therapy, and hippotherapy is relatively small but has been growing exponentially over the past decade. Methodologies such as the randomized controlled trial are very difficult to apply, as these interventions depend upon constantly changing therapeutic input from one multifactorial source (the horse) to a recipient with one variation of a multifactorial disability (cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, MS).

Despite the broad search strategy utilized, only 3 articles met inclusion criteria.6,7,8 Nonetheless, all 3 suggested improvement in balance after hippotherapy sessions, and it is relevant to this discussion that there is significant observational evidence of the value of hippotherapy from therapists, patients, and family, although more specifically in the realms of cerebral palsy and traumatic brain/spinal cord injury.

The United States has more than 700 therapeutic riding centers, and thousands more exist abroad. North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) oversees credentialing of therapeutic riding centers, and the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) ensures the credentialing of qualified therapist in providing hippotherapy interventions.

Practice Implications

Although therapeutic riding in general, and hippotherapy in particular, do not have the plethora of rigorous research evidence of more conventional therapies, a multitude of centers have been treating tens of thousands of patients for decades with very conclusively positive observational findings. Risk to the patient is very low, and there are no documented side effects of these interventions other than the occasional allergy to horses or other environmental sources such as hay. Given the paucity of beneficial therapies and lack of any known cures, referral to a therapeutic riding center should be made to patients afflicted with these severe neurological disabilities.

About the Author

Bill Benda, MD, is an emergency medicine physician, lecturer, writer, and researcher committed to the integration of alternative and conventional medicine. Benda graduated cum laude from Duke University, Durham, North Carolinareceived his medical degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. He serves on the board of directors of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and the board of trustees of the American Holistic Medical Association. Benda is an associate editor of both the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal.

References

1. Trapp BD, Peterson J, Ransohoff RM, Rudick R, Mork S, Bo L. Axonal transection in the lesions of multiple sclerosis. N Engl J Med. 1998;338:278-285.

2. Snook EM, Motl RW. Effect of exercise training on walking mobility in multiple sclerosis: A meta-analysis. Neurorehabil Neural Repair. 2009;23:108-116.

3. Wiles CM. Physiotherapy and related activities in multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler. 2008;14:863-871.

4. Heine B. Hippotherapy. A multisystem approach to the treatment of neuromuscular disorders. Aust J Physiother. 1997;43:145-149.

5. Meregillano G. Hippotherapy. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2004;15:843-854.

6. Silkwood-Sherer D, Warmbier H. Effects of hippotherapy on postural stability, in persons with multiple sclerosis: a pilot study. J Neurol Phys Ther. 2007;31:77-84.

7. Hammer A, Nilsagård Y, Forsberg A, Pepa H, Skargren E, Öberg B. Evaluation of therapeutic riding (Sweden)/hippotherapy (United States). A single-subject experimental design study replicated in eleven patients with multiple sclerosis. Physiother Theory Pract. 2005;21:51-77.

8. MacKay-Lyons M, Conway C, Roberts W. Effects of therapeutic riding on patients with multiple sclerosis: a preliminary trial. Physiother Can. 1988;40:104-109.