Rehabilitation can be defined as restoration following disease, illness, or injury, of ability to function in a normal or
near normal manner. With respect to this abstract the injury I'll focus on is joint surgery in the dog for rupture of the
cranial cruciate ligament. However, the principals apply to many orthopedic surgeries. With respect to restoration of function
I'll draw your attention to the scientific literature and contrast that to the many opinions that have now been voiced regarding
Prolonged immobilization after joint surgery is closely associated with degenerative alterations in connective tissue, cartilage,
ligaments, muscles, and bone-ligament complexes, while allowing for hypertrophy of periarticular fibrous tissue. Restricted
knee motion after anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction in people contributes to joint pain, muscle atrophy, decreased
joint mobility, increased arthrofibrosis, soft tissue weakness and functional impairment. Loss of joint mobility and joint
instability disrupt normal joint kinematics and can lead to osteoarthritis (OA). Loss of mobility causes pain and effusion
after prolonged weight bearing, crepitus during extension, altered gait, decreased knee function, and reduces the likelihood
of return to pre-injury function.
Alternatively, early motion and aggressive postoperative physical therapy after ACL surgery in people has been reported to
improve prognosis. Early physical therapy results in earlier and more complete return to function, often by 4-6 months after
surgery, reduces re-injury rates while not increasing intra-articular graft failure rates. In athletes recovering from ACL
surgery, it has been reported to reduce pain, joint effusion, capsular contraction, and periarticular fibrosis while increasing
range of motion, muscle mass and limb strength. Finally, Shelbourne et al. and others have suggested that early postoperative
physical therapy reduced the development of arthrofibrosis and OA. More recent evidence has suggested that focuses on training
muscles that require use of proprioceptive skills is advantageous. This can be performed in dogs by using cavalettis.
In animals, physical therapy has been suggested to decrease muscle spasm, promote tissue healing and repair, increase ROM,
decrease edema, and increase muscle strength and endurance. Improved range of motion, cartilage nutrition, and orientation
and strength of collagen fibers in the ACL grafts are additional beneficial effects of early motion following joint surgery.
Millis et al. have suggested that low impact exercises, including swimming and walking, avoid worsening of OA while maintaining
muscle strength, joint mobility, and function. Finally, it has been reported that physical therapy after joint surgery decreases
adhesions, is valuable for maintenance of muscle mass, bone, cartilage and ligaments, and provides the stress needed for reorganization
of transplanted tissues.
Rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament (RCCL) is a common cause of lameness and the number one diagnosed stifle injury in
the dog. While much attention has been given to the role of various surgical techniques for repair of RCCL, peer-reviewed
literature addressing the role of postoperative management for dogs is scarce. Anecdotal reports several text books and manuscripts
addressing surgical techniques for the ruptured cranial cruciate ligament suggest postoperative management should include
application of a Robert Jones bandage for up to 14 days and activity restricted to a leash for up to 12 weeks. Much of this
management is seemingly geared towards increasing the strength of periarticular fibrous tissue and mechanically protecting
the repair technique. One could argue that this approach may actually increase the likelihood of a poor outcome for patients.
One of the first investigations in veterinary medicine looked at the effect of early postoperative physical therapy on limb
function in dogs after surgery for RCCL. In this study, twenty-five dogs were included in a postoperative physical therapy
group and twenty-six dogs were included in an exercise restriction group. Rehabilitation in this report focused on swimming,
stretching and range of motion exercises and leash walking. Rehabilitation began 10-14 days following arthrotomy. Vertical
forces were measured using force plate gait analysis preoperatively and six months after surgery. Prior to surgery vertical
forces were statistically similar between groups. Six months after surgery, vertical forces in dogs in the physical therapy
group were significantly greater than in dogs in the exercise restriction group. Peak vertical force (PVF) in dogs in the
physical therapy group was 18.5% greater than dogs in the exercise restriction group, vertical impulse (VI) was 13.9% greater,
and dogs in the physical therapy treatment group reached vertical forces that were statistically identical to that of the
opposite normal limb. Considering these findings, it is reasonable to suggest that the after surgery for RCCL dogs benefit
from postoperative physical therapy and that it should be considered as part of the care provided to these patients.