Wearable placebos

May 16, 2011

Star athletes Shaquille O’Neal, Drew Brees, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Ogletree all believe that a little wristband somehow gives them an extra boost.

“I kept feeling something when I wore the bracelet. . . . I’ve been wearing the bracelet ever since,” basketball legend O’Neal says in an endorsment on the Web site of the company that makes the Power Balance bracelet, which features hologram stickers.

Meanwhile, Kevin Ogletree of the Dallas Cowboys is one of 22 current and former professional athletes endorsing the Ampli5 wristband, with the special stainless-steel clasp. The company claims the piece of metal helps enhance a person’s natural “frequencies.”

How small bands encircling these large athletic wrists might contribute to their athletic prowess is unclear: There’s no peer-reviewed research demonstrating that effect. Yet according to the companies and sports-oriented retailers, people continue to buy them.

“The placebo effect can be very powerful,” said Joel Press, medical director of the Spine and Sports Rehabilitation Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “There is no scientific evidence. But it doesn’t mean you can’t get a benefit from anything you believe in.”

Sold at sporting goods stores and online, the $29.95 Power Balance wristbands come in a variety of colors and are made of either silicone or neoprene. But what makes a Power Balance band special, the manufacturer says, are the two dime-size hologram stickers that supposedly interact with the body’s natural energy to improve strength, balance and flexibility.

Florida-based Ampli5 maintains that its special clasp gives its band power, providing the right conductivity and frequency to affect a person’s natural electrostatic state, according to Bill Whalen, the company’s chief marketing officer. Ampli5 bracelets sell for $14.99 online and at convenience stores. “From a laymen’s perspective, we’re able to increase the speed in which your body functions internally,” Whalen said. “It increases [the body’s] strength, balance, energy, performance, pain management.”

Living tissue does have some electromagnetic properties, according to Press. Muscles contract and relax because of the electrical messages processed by the nervous system. And physical therapists use intense, penetrating electrical stimulation (“stim”) to mend fractures and nerve damage, strengthen muscles and reduce pain.

“The idea that you can heal if you have electrical energy sent to you is completely valid,” said Shin Lin, a member of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In her research as professor at University of California at Irvine, she said, “we’re questioning whether a $10 bracelet will send enough energy to achieve that sort of effect.”

Power Balance stickers are “programmed through a proprietary process . . . to mimic Eastern philosophies,” according to the company Web site.

“Power Balance was founded on the belief that an athlete’s performance could be enhanced through the blending of ancient Eastern philosophy with modern-day technology,” wrote Adam Selwyn, a company spokesman in an e-mail message. He said the band has sold well but declined to provide specifics.

Ampli5 also claims centuries-old Eastern medical principles are at work in the functioning of its bands, which are also promoted by Pro Football Hall of Fame member Marcus Allen and Olympic skier Bode Miller.

Press and others are doubtful: “If it works for you, I can’t argue with it, but don’t get too high of expectations,” Press said.

Numerous studies have supported the effectiveness of placebos, but they have also shown that results do not last long. Placebos are not going to make you healthier, but they may give you the confidence to persevere to your physical potential.

In December, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which helps enforce the country’s consumer protection laws, challenged the science behind the Power Balance bracelets. “When a product is heavily promoted, sold at major sporting stores and worn by celebrities, consumers tend to give a certain legitimacy to the product and the representations being made,” Graeme Samuel, the commission’s chairman, said in a press release. “Suppliers of these types of products must ensure that they are not claiming supposed benefits when there is no supportive scientific evidence.”

In January, the Australian branch of the California-based company put out a “corrective advertisement” which said, “In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct.” The company offered refunds to its Australian customers.

The company’s Web site states: “While we have received testimonials and responses from around the world about how Power Balance has helped people, there is no assurance it can work for everyone. That’s why we offer a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee: If you’re not satisfied, just return the product within 30 days with proof of purchase.”

Since the events in Australia, Selwyn said, Power Balance has begun clinical studies to “further validate and quantify” the benefits of its technology. There has been no similar enforcement action in the United States.

“Recent misperceptions about the efficacy of our product were generated in large part by an over-zealous regulator in Australia,” Selwyn wrote via e-mail. “We remain fully committed to Power Balance products.”

At a local City Sports retail store, about 100 Power Balance wristband boxes recently lined the wall behind the cash register.

The manager confirmed that people still bought and wore the sleek silicone bracelets. The manager, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the store, wore one himself.

Had he noticed a difference in how he felt when he wore the band? Not really, the young, athletically built guy said, but he added that wearing it couldn’t hurt. More to the point, he said, “I just like the way it looks.”

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