“If a nerve is squashed, it’s not too serious, it goes back to normal. If the nerve is severed or torn, the cow will be lame for a long time – the prognosis is bad.”

That made me sit up a little straighter than normal for a Monday morning lecture.

Image © iStockphoto.com/Eraxion
© iStockphoto.com/Eraxion

During my riding accident, I squashed part of my sciatic nerve (it was “stuck” on something, my doctors told me). Of all the injuries I sustained, that was by far the most painful and most long-term. Within a couple of months, I regained most of the movement in my foot, but the pain didn’t stop then.

Nerve pain is unlike other pain; it’s a stinging, hot pins-and-needles, burning, tingling, throbbing and above all persistent pain. There’s no escaping it… except for the appropriate nerve painkillers. It’s difficult to describe, and incomparable.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, I’m still on the painkillers, which is not unusual – I’ve lost count of the number of times doctors have told me nerves take the longest to heal.

So, how can we possibly hope to understand what an animal is going through? Or even, for that matter, whether they are in pain at all? Perhaps slight nerve damage doesn’t seem so serious because the cow can still move almost normally. But how are we to know that the cow is not experiencing that excruciating, burning pins-and-needles sensation?

In farm practice, I suppose the general consensus would be that if the cow’s value decreases and it’s cheaper to euthanise it, then so be it. But what if it were a horse or dog with sciatic nerve damage? Would we go as far as to operate on the damaged nerve (as mine was) or are there nerve-painkillers currently available for animals?

How do we know how long the animal is in pain or discomfort for? My foot doesn’t hurt anymore, but it’s still hypersensitive, so I don’t like people touching it, etc. I would assume nerve tissue in animals takes as long to heal as it does in us. Does that mean these injured animals are suffering, though perhaps on a slightly lower key basis than initially, for longer than we realise?

We can’t possibly experience every type of pain or ailment that an animal might have, so we may not always understand why something hurts or indeed where that pain is coming from (although the pain is in my foot – the damage is at the knee). But all we can do is try to use the resources available to us to do the best for the animals under our care.

As with any condition in veterinary medicine, it comes down to the fact animals can’t speak to us, and we must not forget that.

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