The 2008 Olympics, Beijing. Behind the scenes, and sometimes right there with the athletes, were the chiropractors. Here are a few of their stories.
The BMX athlete and the neck adjustment
Samantha Cools was a Canadian medal hope in the debut of BMX on the Olympic stage. She was a five time world junior champion, and she was looking good. That is, until her chiropractor in Switzerland “over-rotated her neck during a routine adjustment, tearing tendons and muscles, which then pushed up against the main artery in her neck and also the nerves.”
Horrifying, potentially fatal and entirely unnecessary. The consequences of her chiropractic ‘care’ were being unable to train for five weeks before leaving for China, and being unable to chew food. And, once she got to Beijing and competed, a disappointing fifth place finish and a DNF.
One would hope that a lesson was learned, but it seems not. Cools credited her being able to compete at all with the care she was receiving from another chiropractor. He worked on her for 30 minutes before each race in Beijing to loosen her muscles. One presumes he was steering well away from the violent chiropractic neck adjustments that injured her in the first place, and just sticking to massage.
The mysterious magical black muscle tape
Did you spot the black tape that some athletes were wearing? Kerri Walsh, the US beach volleyballer, was never seen without it on a shoulder. It’s called Kinesio tape, and it was developed in the 1970s by a Japanese chiropractor. It does all sorts of magical things, like: “works to support the muscles, remove congestion, activate the endogenous system and correct joint problems”. Blimey,and its only a bit of tape. In fact, unlike rigid tapes, that can be used to, say, hold an ankle in position, Kinesio tape is super thin and flexible. I struggle to imagine how it can have any benefit at all, given that. One might as well take a black sharpie and draw black lines on the shoulder. It would cost less.
I am here to learn, though, and the manufacturers to educate. Here’s what they say it can do.
• Re-educate the neuromuscular system
• Reduce pain
• Enhance performance
• Prevent injury
• Promote good circulation and healing
And how does it do all that? Well, it:
• Creates a lifting effect which improves circulation and relieves pain
• Tension on tape has the ability to relax or stimulate muscles
Got that? Nah, me neither. As explanations go, it’s a bit scant. Supposedly, the tape lifts the skin, and then all these wonderful benefits follow from said lifting action.
Actually, at this point, I’m even unclear as to how it can lift anything. It’s tape, it is stuck directly to the skin, and it just sits there. Is it an antigravity tape? That would lift the skin. Maybe they mean that it lifts the skin when you have to take it off, but before that, one has to wear the tape for the suggested 3 to 4 days and look like a bit of a tit. What the tape does do, if it is stretched before applying to the skin, is provide “a constant pulling (shear) force to the skin over which it is applied.” Fine, but I’d want a wee bit more proof before believing it can therefore ‘re-educate the neuromuscular system’.
Kinesio tape doesn’t have any clinical study evidence for all these marvellous benefits, at least according to to one physical therapist who regularly uses it. He goes on to give this far from ringing endorsement: “I mean it works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. I’ve put it on patients and they’ve felt an immediate difference. I’ve put it on patients and they haven’t felt a single thing.” In other words, some people fall for it, and some people don’t.
But even if it doesn’t have good clinical evidence, it does have some sterling celebrity endorsements, including Lance Armstrong. Lets give him the last word. In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, he described Kinesio tape as “a special hot-pink athletic tape that came from Japan and seemed to have magical powers.”‘
There you go. Magical.
It isn’t a surprise that athletes turn to chiropractors. It’s probably fair to say that most people are unaware of the dangers of chiropractic, but athletes also have a particular vulnerability to chiropractors, and that is an all too common tendency for magical thinking and superstition. For all the athletes out there willing to try anything, no matter how silly, for an edge, there are plenty of charlatans willing to sell them something, be it a magical tape or the promise of unblocked nerves from a neck adjustment. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, had this to say.
“I began visiting a chiropractor not because I needed one but because I had read that energy flows through the spinal cord and can get blocked at various places. I discovered that the more I got adjusted, the more I needed to get adjusted because my neck and back kept going “out”. This went on for a couple of years until I finally quite going altogether, and I’ve never needed a chiropractor since.
All told, I raced as a professional ultra-marathon cyclist for ten years, all the while trying anything and everything (except drugs and steroids) that might improve my performance. As the Race Across America got bigger – it was featured for many years of ABC’s Wide World of Sports – I had many offers to try all sorts of things, which I usually did. From this ten-year experiment with a subject pool of one, I drew two conclusions: nothing increased performance, alleviated pain, or enhanced well-being other than long hours in the saddle, dedication to a consistent training schedule, and a balanced diet; and it pays to be skeptical.”