A Shoe That Prevents Arthritis? Just Do It.

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

I put on a pair of sneakers and walk around the room in the division of biomechanical engineering at Stanford University. The sneakers are a cool go-go white with the Nike logo. They look like the real Nike; they feel like the real Nike. But they are actually experimental shoes in disguise -- specially manufactured by Nike for a study aimed at thwarting the onset of arthritis in the knee.

A shoe to prevent arthritis? Imagine the potential market: millions of boomers with creaky knees lining up to wear this golden sneaker for the golden years!

In its various forms -- principally osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis -- the ailment is projected to affect an estimated 67 million Americans by 2030, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common site of arthritis is in the knee. For many middle-aged men and women, wrapping the knee with a bandage and popping pain relievers are daily habits. For others, knee surgery is a rite of passage in America's Fitness Culture, the medical gateway to staying active and playing sports in one's 50s, 60s and beyond.

I keep pacing the room. I can't tell the difference between my experimental Nikes and the off-the-shelf model. But the experimental shoe is designed to change the way I walk and thus reduce stress on the knee. The sole of the sneaker is thicker and stiffer on the outside, which causes the foot to roll inward so the body sways back and forth with each step.

"Remember Charlie Chaplin," says Thomas P. Andriacchi, professor of mechanical engineering and orthopedic surgery at Stanford, who is in charge of the study -- that goofy, swaying walk from long-ago black-and-white movies. "If you walk like Charlie Chaplin, you'll reduce the loading on the knee," he says. And that, he continues, can prevent degeneration of the knee.

So far, roughly 80 men and women have enrolled in a study to test the shoe. Average age is mid-50s. All the participants have early signs of arthritis, but their symptoms are not so severe as to warrant surgery. The experiment is a placebo-controlled, double-blind study -- meaning that half the people are wearing regular Nikes and half are wearing the experimental design, and no one knows who has which.

Participants must wear the experimental shoes (or the look-alike placebos) every day. At the end of the study, they will be interviewed to see whether there is a reduction of symptoms in the experimental group. They also will be reevaluated with sequential magnetic resonance imaging of the knee to see whether those wearing the shoe had slower thinning of cartilage. Results of the study will be available in about a year.

The experiment is an example of a new trend in medicine: to find low-tech and behavioral ways to maintain strength and fitness of body and mind. I like the shoe and think to myself: What an easy way to stave off a debilitating disorder. But first a note of caution: Final results may be disappointing; the effect on the knee may not be significant. Yet the commercial appeal of an anti-arthritis shoe would be huge: an estimated 25 percent of the adult population.

But Nike, the trend-setter in athletic shoe chic, is not interested in developing a commercial version of the shoe at this time. Even though Nike worked with the researchers on the project and donated 220 pairs of test sneakers to the study, it has decided not to explore the shoe's potential development. As Nike spokeswoman Shannon Shoul explained in a statement: "This was a one-off project and not something that we are currently pursuing."

Maybe the problem is image. In a culture rooted in youth, most mass-market companies, from car manufacturers to film producers, want a youthful brand that appeals to a young (18-49) audience.

Too bad! There's plenty of market growth in the 50-plus crowd. According to the Nike philosophy, "If you have a body, you are an athlete." That's true at 20, and at 80. ยท


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