Whole body vibration therapy

Vibration therapy is a new trend in the equine world. If you’ve ever seen a horse standing on one of these large vibrating platforms, or perhaps tried one yourself, you’ve likely wondered how they work.

This type of therapy is termed whole body vibration therapy (WBVT). Vibration plates are becoming very popular in both the human and equine athletic worlds, and range in size, magnitude, frequency and duration.

  • Size — for equine use, the plate needs to be large enough to accommodate a whole horse.
  • Magnitude — measured in g-force, which is the acceleration of 9.8 meters per second (1g is equal to the earth’s gravitational field). Most equine WBVT plates have a built-in magnitude. The magnitude has more to do with the up and down vibration than the side to side or forward to back.
  • Frequency (Hz) — the cycles per second, or how many times the plate moves per second. Frequency is normally adjustable on WBVT plates.
  • Duration — the time spent vibrating; this is also adjustable.

Vibration benefits

Indications for whole body vibration therapy are numerous. In horses, they include tendon and ligament injuries, laminitis, arthritis, bucked shins, decreased bone density, navicular syndrome, cellulitis, colic, and more. We use WBVT for horses that are stalled and cannot exercise properly, such as those on limited exercise or stall rest. We find that some horses with arthritic joints, muscle soreness or painful feet feel better after WBVT. Horses with tendon and ligament injuries are normally on limited exercise, so we use WBVT to stimulate those tendons and ligaments without the impact of trotting or cantering. Horses that are stalled or on limited turnout are stressed, and we can use WBVT to relieve that stress (we have had horses fall asleep while receiving WBVT!). We also use it for pre-exercise warmups for horses on limited exercise. Some horses receive post-exercise WBVT to calm them, but it depends on their individual temperaments.

When vibration becomes dangerous

“Too much of a good thing” can be bad, and vibration has the potential to be hazardous. People have careers built on trying to eliminate or control vibrations in the workplace. Hazardous vibrations, sometimes called “occupational vibrations”, can cause low back pain, neurovestibular disorders and vascular problems. Magnitude is probably the most hazardous vibrational direction for horses because it’s more involved with up and down motion — for example, a jackhammer motion. WBVT plates should have an up and down, side to side, and back and forth motion, which decreases the vibration hazard.

Even though there are numerous indications for WBVT, the contraindications are probably most important. There are numerous contraindications in human literature, but I have not found many in equine literature. Our contraindications include horses with bone implants, fractures of any kind (including bucked shins and “hairline” fractures), acute laminitis, extensive ligament or tendon lesions (depending on type), post-colic surgery, lacerations (depending on type), ataxia, or horses with proprioceptive deficiencies, narcolepsy, blood clots, severe dental or sinus problems, infections, head trauma, ethmoid hematomas, vertebral disc problems, osteochondral defects, post-arthroscopy surgery and more. We also do not use WBVT if the horse does not like it. Some horses have to be slowly trained to stand on the vibration plate. If they do not accept WBVT we do not force them to stay on the plate. We have a ramp built around the plate and no stocks, so the horse can get off at any time.

Passive exercise

Whole body vibration therapy has been coined as passive exercise. Exercise is being applied to the horse – he just has to stand on a plate and is exercising through whole body stimulation without exertion. Very limited research is available in the equine industry on the effectiveness of WBVT; most research has been done in the human medical field and even that is limited.

Whole body vibration therapy works (in my opinion) by sending vibrations up from the plate and through the whole body. If you stand on the plate and turn it to a certain frequency, you can feel the vibration in your ears. The vibrations going though the bones mimic the micro-forces you would receive if you exercised (e.g. ground concussion). Osteocytes (bone cells) like exercise, so they do a better job of keeping the bone in good condition.

The vibrations traveling through muscles, tendons and ligaments cause muscles to experience micro-contractions, probably stimulating all muscle type fibers (i.e. type I, IIA, IIX, IIAX) early in the treatment cycles. Later on, after the horse is comfortable with WBVT, more type I fibers are probably being used. Type I fibers are more for maintenance and posture, while the type II groups are for strength and movement. The micro-contractions are caused by the body sensing the movement and trying to stabilize and balance itself. Thus, the horse is exercising without exercising. WBVT is reported to increase blood and lymphatic flow, bone density, flexibility and range of motion, muscle strength, balance and hoof growth, and reduce muscle response time, inflammation, and relieve soreness.

Developing a treatment plan

The settings we use on our vibration plate vary between horses. Our vibration plate has only two adjustable settings — frequency (Hz) and off and on. All horses start at a 10 Hz setting and slowly move up to the desired setting over a two to three minute time period. We stop increasing frequency if the horse becomes anxious. Some horses never reach the desired settings, but even at the low frequency they are benefitting from it. More is not always better. We like to treat most horses at around 25 Hz to 45 Hz for strengthening and stretching, and 40 Hz to 55 Hz for a massage. The duration of a session is ten to 20 minutes. Shorter times and higher frequencies are for pre-exercise. Strengthening is done with longer times and lower frequencies. WBVT is done at least three times a week. For some horses that are stalled, we will do daily sessions at low frequencies and longer durations.

We feel that whole body vibration therapy has many benefits when used for appropriately. We use it in conjunction with other rehabilitation therapies. However, more research is needed to prove WBVT’s efficacy and benefits.