Managing the pain of syringomyelia

What is Syringomyelia?


How massage can help

Advice for owners

Commonly referred to as ‘neck scratchers disease’ syringomyelia (SM) is a genetic condition where fluid filled cavities develop within the spinal cord. Breeds commonly affected include Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Pugs, Boston Terriers, French Bulldogs and Chihuahuas.


At its most extreme the lack of space within the skull causes a part of the brain (the Cerebellum which coordinates muscular activity) to be forced out. Cerebrospinal fluid can no longer shunt backwards and forwards with arterial flow and this produces pressure waves.

Cysts can form within the spinal cord further affecting the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Disruption to this fluid affects nerve transmission and can produce pain, coordination problems, weakness and stiffness. In humans the condition is called Chiari malformation.

A veterinary diagnosis requires an MRI scan. 


  • Neck scratching

  • Hindlimb weakness

  • Resistant to petting/grooming

  • Difficulty settling particularly at night

  • Sensitive to touch on the neck, ears and chest

  • Facial nerve paralysis


Symptoms worsen in temperature extremes


How May Canine Massage Help A Dog With Syringomyelia?

1) Improve Muscle Function and Mobility

The most common muscular condition in dogs with Syringomyelia is hypertonicity, particularly around the neck and shoulder. Muscles become habituated and are no longer able to relax. The muscles are in a constant state of involuntarily contraction and this further irritates the nerves.

A restricted neck decreases normal patterns of movement not just in the neck and shoulders but also in the hindquarters and spine. This is because some muscles run from the skull right through to the pelvis. So dysfunction will be caused throughout the body as tension is placed on the full length of these muscles.

The dog will commonly find transient strokes or general petting uncomfortable. I have been trained in the myofascial releases which will create space within the muscles and complex fascial system, release restrictions and improve the ability of the muscle to move

2) Improve Nerve Function

Nerves penetrate muscle and fascia to communicate stimuli from internal and external sources. When the muscle becomes hypertonic it causes trigger points and myofascial pain which then irritate the nerves. Irritated nerves send more signals to the brain, this over-excitability fires up the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the fight or flight system.

The sympathetic system makes it difficult for your dog to relax. They may pace around, be unable to get comfortable or appear anxious are hyper-aware. Your dog may shy away from touch in the area and will appear distressed. Further information on stress responses has been produced in a separate article.

I have a range of techniques to help encourage the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response to improve nerve function, provide pain relief and help improve comfort.

3) Break The Pain Cycle

When muscle, fascia and nerves are in a state of irritation they will over tighten causing further restrictions and irritation including:

  • painful trigger points that can mimic the symptoms of arthritis

  • restricted flow of lymph causing painful swollen lymph nodes

  • areas of reduced muscular function

  • myofascial pain


I use a combination of massage and myofascial work release or restore movement in these tissues, helping to enhance the flow of oxygen, nutrients and lymph and to re-facilitate nerve impulses.

I work on the whole body to address areas of overcompensation and patterns of pain referral. I work with the owner and the vet and continually review whether the treatment is providing relief for the dog.


Massage will not make the condition go away but it is a real, accessible way of providing pain management and the benefits can last for several weeks at a time. Massage is particularly effective with those dogs that cannot tolerate anti-inflammatories (aka NSAIDs) or has renal failure where conventional pain management is not an option.


French Bulldog

Image from Fitzpatrick Referrals

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel


Advice For Owners

We all want the best quality of life for our beloved dogs so if your dog has been diagnosed with SM, massage by a trained professional is always the best course of action along with the other advice listed below. Massage is an effective, drug free therapy to help your dog manage their condition and associated pain, but regular treatment will be required to maintain improvements.

  •   Collar -  Your dog should not wear a collar. Even a loose house collar will be rubbing on the skin and irritating superficial nerves in the skin. Only walk your dog on a harness.

  • Slippy Floors such as hardwood flooring and vinyl - Moving on these floors requires constant effort and this causes long lines of tension throughout the dog’ s forelimbs, shoulder and neck. This exacerbates the condition.

  • Feeding Height - Provide food and water using a raised feeding bowl to prevent the neck from being put into a sustained lengthening (eccentric) contraction as this prevents relaxation of the muscles.

  • Tug games - Do not play tug games as the neck, jaw and shoulder muscles will be excessively stressed!

  • Your Dogs ‘Tickly’ Spot! - This spot is actually an area of restricted fascia, the associated nerves of which are already inhibited and scratching it causes discomfort and further irritation. So please don’t scratch your dogs ‘tickly spot’.

  • Restrict Activities - Jumping down (off the sofa or out of the car) will increase your dog’s discomfort. The percussive forces on landing send shock waves up their forelimbs and neck. Lift your dog or use specially designed steps.

  • Drugs - Do not resist giving their dog pharmaceuticals to help with pain. Speak to your vet about the best painkiller to help manage your dog’s pain. They may periodically complete blood tests check liver and kidney function. If you are considering giving turmeric/golden paste do your research as this can be harmful for some dogs, particularly those with heart disease!


The pain your dog experiences does not help with healing or quality of life and the correct pharmaceuticals can truly help your dog.

  • Zoopharmacognosy - The self selection of herbs, plants and oils. This therapy can be nothing less than life changing for many dogs. Find out more at

  • Wobble Cushions And Instability Equipment - Do not use these. All you will be doing is creating long lines of tension in    the muscle which cause the muscles to become even more dysfunctional.


© 2018, Safe Hands Clinical Canine Massage.

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