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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2008 Dec;105(6):1927-33. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00717.2007. Epub 2008 Oct 2.

Physical activity: does long-term, high-intensity exercise in horses result in tendon degeneration?

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Institute of Orthopaedics & Musculoskeletal Science, Univ. College London, Stanmore Campus, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Brockley Hill, Stanmore HA7 4LP, UK.


This study explores the hypothesis that high-intensity exercise induces degenerative changes in the injury-prone equine superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT), but not in the rarely injured common digital extensor tendon (CDET). The horse represents a large-animal model that is applicable to human tendon and ligament physiology and pathology. Twelve age-matched female horses undertook galloping exercise three times a week with trotting exercise on alternative days (high-intensity group, n = 6) or only walking exercise (low-intensity group, n = 6) for 18 mo. The SDFT, suspensory ligament, deep digital flexor tendon, and CDET were harvested from the forelimb. Tissue from the mid-metacarpal region of the right limb tendons was analyzed for water, DNA, sulfated glycosaminoglycan and collagen content, collagen type III-to-I ratios, collagen cross-links, and tissue fluorescence. Left limb tendons were mechanically tested to failure. The analyses showed matrix composition to have considerable diversity between the functionally different structures. In addition, the specific structures responded differently to the imposed exercise. High-intensity training resulted in a significant decrease in the GAG content in the SDFT, but no change in collagen content, despite a decrease in collagen fibril diameters. There were no signs of degeneration or change in mechanical properties of the SDFT. The CDET had a lower water content following high-intensity training and a higher elastic modulus. Long-term, high-intensity training in skeletally mature individuals results in changes that suggest accelerated aging in the injury-prone SDFT and adaptation in the CDET.

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