Recovery treatments: Fad or the future?

This article is a little more personal than those I usually write. Let’s face it. I’m getting older, and my body suffers after workouts for days now when I used to feel 100% the next day. For my latest newspaper column, I discuss the recovery treatments I have tried (yes, some sound crazy, even to me) to help my body recover from workouts, what some pros do, and what the pros and cons of these treatments could be.

As I get older, my workouts are starting to take a toll on my body. Weight lifting four days a week, high intensity interval training three days a week, core (abs) exercises three days a week, and a mobility workout every weekday morning hurt more than they used to.

I love all of it, but the shoulder, elbow, neck and back pain I’ve developed over the past couple of years has made me obsessed with recovery. I’m talking way beyond foam rollers. I’ll try almost any idea if it helps me work out hard and hit the gym pain-free the next day.

Are cupping and other recovery treatments helpful?

My quest for recovery

Here are just a few of the fads/gadgets/recovery tools I’ve tried:

• A variety of cold therapy devices
• An electrical stimulation, or e-stim, unit
• Regular massages (felt good at the time but hard to see a definite long-term benefit)
• Ice cold showers after workouts (most of the time…well, sometimes…)
• Compression shirts and pants worn as I sleep (too hot)
• Vibrating foam rollers and spheres (no effect on my muscle pliability as far as I can tell but they feel great when I’m sore and stiff)
• Cupping (see my Instagram post for the effect it had on my back. My son can’t look at that picture.)
• A sleep induction mat with little spikes that press into your back (sounds barbaric but I fall asleep in a couple of minutes!)
• A nerve stimulator that looks like a pair of earbuds that vibrates in your ear to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to help you relax (really?!)

I even have three pairs of Tom Brady’s TB12 Under Armour pajamas. They are coated with a bioceramic layer that is supposed to… well, I don’t know, honestly. I can’t tell if I feel better in the morning after wearing them. Before you laugh at me, I must admit that they are really comfortable.

Stretch treatments and whole body cryotherapy are next

I’m excited to try a few new fads soon. I want to go to a clinic where they basically stretch every muscle and joint in your body. And I’m going to try a session of whole body cryotherapy. You basically stand in a tank reaching -200 degrees for two or three minutes. Sounds fun, right?

Also read:
A novel approach to sleep and recovery

Weekend warriors everywhere are trying these recovery treatments

As an orthopedic surgeon who sees thousands of athletes and active people, I’ll tell you that I’m not the only one who takes recovery seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people who will try anything to recover faster from demanding sports and exercise.

The lengths elite athletes will go to recover

If you think it’s crazy for weekend warriors to go to these lengths, look at where these ideas got their start – elite athletes. In his book, Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age, author Jeff Bercovici details some of the even more outlandish steps some pros take.

• Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry lies in a float tank filled with saltwater to recharge.
• Former NBA star Amar’e Stoudamire soaks in a bath of Spanish tempranillo after games (yes, red wine) that’s supposed to help your red blood cells and healing.
• Marathoner Meb Keflezighi wears sleeves that use waves of pressure to flush lactic acid and other waste products out of muscle.
• Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie wears a device with gel pads on his body that are hooked to wires that cause his muscles to contract and relax while he sleeps. It supposedly helps healing and regeneration.
• Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers occasionally sleeps on the ground or an “earthing” mat. Proponents of this practice believe connecting to the earth’s negative surface charge stimulates blood flow and healing.

Recovery tools have progressed far past massage.

Is there scientific proof these recovery treatments work?

Here’s the problem. For almost all of these tools, there is currently little data to prove a benefit. Most studies involve a small number of people, often without a control group, and show only a weak positive benefit. Often when larger studies come out, these treatments show little to no long-term benefit.

Why elite athletes often use these recovery treatments

To be fair, it can take a decade or more to get quality research on treatments like these. Elite athletes don’t have a decade to wait for the scientific proof. They need to recover and improve performance now. They have millions of dollars from injuries and missed seasons at the ends of their careers on the line.

Also read:
Tips for better sleep and recovery

Is there a real risk to trying these recovery treatments?

If you’re at all like me, you might be intrigued and consider trying some of these recovery treatments. There’s usually no real harm other than maybe the harm to your wallet. But you might try one and feel better. Of course, you might try something like cryotherapy or hyperbaric oxygen for a month and realize it didn’t help much in the long run.

Think about your options and whether one of these treatments is worth the cost. Sleep on it. No induction mat or Tom Brady pajamas required.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the May 24, 2018 issue of The Post and Courier.