Compression therapy has been around a lot longer than you might think. It was first used in human medicine around 400 bc and over the past century physicians have used graduated compression stockings to improve venous return and circulation, and improve recovery time from injuries. Sports scientists have found human athletes who wear graduated compression garments during activity, specifically after intense activity, have increased oxygen availability to muscles, significantly reduced lactic acid production, enhanced recovery time from injury, reduced
DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and swelling associated with exercise. Compression garments have also been shown to assist the body in flushing out waste products (lactic acids and carbon dioxide) after exercise.
From humans to horses
The use of compression wraps for horses has now moved into the mainstream with much of the technology and experience borrowed from human medicine.
Hot, humid climates pose significant risk to horses’ delicate legs, specifically with strenuous conditioning and training. Traditional quilts and polos can trap heat around the leg, or, in a worst-case scenario, a bad wrapping job can be the end of a horse’s career.
Keeping horses stabled with minimal time for free movement, along with concentrated physical training, results in an unnatural movement routine. The transport capacity of the lymphatic system decreases significantly when a horse is standing in a confined space, such as a stall, small paddock, or trailer. The flow velocity and total volume of lymph fluid being moved is reduced, putting the standing horse at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recovery from injury or exertion. Because the horse has roughly 8,000 lymph nodes, compared to an average of 500 in humans, there is a greater propensity for lymphatic “bottlenecks”— the lymphatic fluid slows down and concentrates when entering each lymph node.
Not surprisingly, performance horses frequently develop swollen or filled legs because of lymphatic compromise. Graduated compression acts like a mechanical massage on the leg, stimulating circulation and keeping the leg tight and cool.
Preventing “stocking up”
While standing wraps have been the accepted methodology to counteract stocking up, research by lymph specialist Dirk Berens von Rautenfeld from the Medical University of Hannover calls this age-old practice into question.
“Bandages are poison for the lymphatic and blood flow once the horse is not moving,” writes von Rautenfeld, who worked with Professor Cordula Poulsen Nautrup from the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Munich. The problem becomes extremely critical when the head of the fetlock is bandaged because there is already a natural bottleneck at this spot, and the bandage completely restricts the transport systems.