8 popular sports medicine products, reviewed

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Which ones can help you reach your fitness goals?

By Cliff Mehrtens

Plenty of fitness enthusiasts are looking for an edge.

It’s easy to be intrigued by a product you see a fellow exerciser using, or a can’t-miss claim from a celebrity endorser. Hmm, you think “Can that work for me?” Will it improve my health?

Some sports medicine products can help. Others are a bit sketchier.

Dr. Eric Warren

“The vast majority of products out there aren’t going to hurt you, so that’s reassuring,” said Dr. Eric Warren, medical director of Novant Health Sports Medicine. He practices at Novant Health Waxhaw Family & Sports Medicine. “There are some that have benefits. When it comes to really important things like breathing, and our brains, I wouldn’t rely heavily on a product when there’s no great science behind it. I would recommend against those. But for most that stabilize a joint, or give some compression, those are fine for you to use.”

Warren critiqued eight popular and trendy products:

1. High altitude masks

The masks attempt to simulate exercising at a high altitude (more than 5,000 feet above sea level). The resisted breathing makes you work “harder” inhaling and exhaling.

Warren said: “The science says they don’t work. If you live in a high altitude and train, there’s a process called erythropoiesis, where you create more red blood cells and deliver oxygen more efficiently. That gives a little bit of an edge when you play against people who live and train at a lower altitude. These masks that just cause difficulty in breathing that you’ve seen some famous football players endorse, they cannot reproduce that process. They just make it harder to breathe.”

The verdict: No

2. Copper braces/wraps

The copper infused in these products claims to aid in aches, pains and inflammation.

Warren said: “I think when we talk about the copper portion of these braces, we’re talking about the placebo effect more than anything else. I haven’t seen any great data saying copper topically on the skin is going to help in any way. If you have an elbow or knee sleeve on, copper or not, there is some compression and that makes you more aware of that joint.”

The verdict: No

3. KT tape

The KT stands for “kinesiology therapeutic,” and the tape is used to support and relieve pain in muscles, joints and ligaments. It also can reduce swelling and increase mobility.

Warren said: “If applied correctly, it decompresses and raises skin layers to allow the lymphatic system to take white blood cells and inflammatory markers away and that might promote healing. It’s potentially effective, in theory. Some of the benefit may be “proprioceptive feedback.” For example, if you have an athlete who has this on their shoulder, they’re more aware of their shoulder because they have that tape on.”

The verdict: Probably OK

4. Mouthguards

They are usually thin, flexible pieces of plastic that fit over your teeth, and are common in almost every sport in which impact, contact and collision are likely to occur.

Warren said:  “To protect teeth and smiles, 100 percent. Wear it. Absolutely. If we’re talking about them to prevent against concussions, there is not strong evidence saying they are helpful.”

The verdict: Yes

5. Concussion headgear

They have been marketed plenty in recent years for soccer players, and as protection in rugby, basketball and boxing.

Warren said:  “The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported there’s no evidence that these devices are helpful to prevent concussions. There’s a lot of folks marketing (headgear) for football, soccer and other sports, and there’s no great evidence that the devices are helpful other than from what the manufacturer that’s selling the device has. All the scientific literature says it doesn’t.”

The verdict: No.

6. Posture corrector

They claim to help with back and neck pain, and correct poor posture.

Warren said:  “In terms or realigning the spine, not so much. We either need to work on core strengthening, flexibility and our own posture awareness. For some people who have kyphosis, older women in particular who start to get hunched over more, having some realignment because they don’t have the strength to overcome that, the correction can be pain-relieving and helpful. But wearing them for a few hours a day, taking them off to sleep and not strengthening the muscles, you’re not going to get an overall net benefit.”

The verdict: Probably not

7. Plantar fasciitis socks

A Strassburg sock, worn while you’re sleeping, applies a gentle stress to the plantar fascia, which prevents it from tightening and shortening while you’re asleep.

Warren said:  “The theory on Strassburg socks it helps to hold the foot back so it heals in a functional position. There’s some evidence that they’re helpful, especially for a three-week course of using them.”

The verdict: Yes

8. Patellar stabilizer

These braces are designed to support your knee, help it move properly and decrease wear on the kneecap and knee joint.

Warren said:  “We see people who have patellofemoral syndrome, often felt as anterior or front of the knee pain. Your kneecap lives in a little groove, a valley. For a lot of people, as they get older in particular, the quadriceps muscles aren’t balanced as they should be and the kneecap is moving more than it should. That’s painful, so having a stabilizer can help, but you still need to work to strengthen your quads. Other people have patellar subluxations or dislocations – the kneecap sliding out of joint – and patellar stabilizers can be helpful for that as well.”

The verdict: Yes

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