Lots of people grew up reading the tales of James Herriot, a country veterinarian in rural England in the 1930s and 40s. However charming the country folk were, what most of us don’t have a sense of nostalgia for is the incredibly limited type of medicine that was practiced at the time, which generally consisted of "I hope this drench I am giving to your cow to rid her of parasites is at least a little more toxic to the parasites than it is to the cow."
Although modern scientific medicine now gives us the power to identify and remedy a vast array of problems that were previously untreatable, there are still plenty of conditions out there that force me to give the dreaded "This is what the problem is and there is nothing that I can do about it" speech. Fortunately there is a tool out there that is just starting to catch on in a big way in veterinary medicine that is giving us a chance to cross a few of those aggravating unresponsive conditions off the list--the therapeutic laser.
When the product representative first came to our clinic I have to admit that the snake oil salesman red flags went up immediately. She was claiming that this machine, which costs as much as a new car, will dramatically improve nearly any problem in which there is pain and inflammation, or in which wound healing is needed, and all without drugs or negative side effects. The list includes, but is not limited to: arthritis, bite wounds, surgical recovery, skin and ear infection, bladder problems, and back pain. Cancer is the one thing you don’t point it at, as encouraging cells to grow and regenerate is not something we want in that situation. When someone claims that one type of treatment fixes everything including your cappuccino in the morning it seems a little too good to be true, but the device is FDA approved, which means that rigorous scientific studies have been conducted that demonstrate measurable efficacy and safety. All the big veterinary conferences have had extensive lectures and seminars about laser therapy and Universities and practitioners all over the country are reporting amazing results, so we decided to jump in and see what all the hype was about.
We decided to be more aggressive and purchase a class IV laser, which is more powerful than the class III lasers and has seemed to produce more reliable results. We have only had the laser for a few weeks now, but in that time I have been surprised at what we have been seeing. Here are two stories.
"Josh" had come out on the losing end of a nasty fight with his housemate. He had a gash under his eye and a right foreleg that was so chewed up that he was unable to put any weight on it when he came in. We cleaned the wounds and placed some drains and almost as an afterthought we decided to try the laser on his shredded leg to see if it would help. He hobbled out of the hospital later that day with antibiotics and pain medication, but I knew from experience that even in the best of circumstances he was in for at least three to five days of misery before that leg was going to feel better. The next day his owner called concerned that there might be a problem with the drain under his eye, so I had them bring him in for a recheck. It turned out the drain was fine, but more impressively "Josh" walked into the hospital like nothing had happened to the mangled front leg. The owners had no idea that it wasn’t normal for a dog to recover from that kind of trauma so fast, but I was amazed.
"Shadow" the cat came in with a urinary issue that ended up being the dreaded feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), a painful bladder problem that looks and acts like a urinary tract infection but doesn’t respond to antibiotics. Pain medication helps a little (if you can get it into the cat and if the medication doesn’t cause its own problems) but nothing really resolves the problem. I hate the look on owner’s faces when I have to tell them that we will try special diets and pain medication, but their cat is probably doomed to suffering repeated bouts of this painful condition until it gets better on its own in a few days or a few weeks, and they are doomed to bloody cat pee all over the house until he feels better too. Lots of people pack up and go to another veterinarian after that gloomy speech. I am hoping that those that packed up and went elsewhere went to someone with a therapeutic laser. After the first treatment "Shadow" no longer had visible blood in the urine and was much less painful. By three treatments he was back to normal. He may have flare ups occasionally, but now I have something that actually relieves the symptoms.
Now we joke amongst ourselves that any time we are faced with a challenging case all we need to do is point the laser at it to achieve a miracle cure. Have issues with a badly behaved boyfriend? Just wave the laser at him. Burned the popcorn? The laser can help. Maybe that would be taxing the limits of the laser’s theraputic ability, but we continue to be amazed at the longstanding issues that we have not previously been able to resolve that are finally getting some relief with the laser.