Pain-Relieving Gadgets -- Do They Work?

From massagers to magnets, we get an expert view on the latest in pain relief.

February 09, 2009, 3:30 PM

Jan. 26, 2008 — -- Muscles so tight your shoulders threaten to swallow your head whole. Ankles so swollen they'd gross out the Elephant Man. Then there's that stabbing throb just below your brow that shoots through your skull after being ambushed at the parent-teacher conference -- who knew your angel hadn't turned in her math homework in a month?

We all have aches and pains. But temporary pain relief has moved from dreary medical supply stores to what are now dubbed health and wellness sections of home stores and tech-y catalogs.

But are these gadgets effective?

Dr. Timothy Collins, associate clinical professor of neurology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says that while many of these devices may temporarily alleviate pain, those who experience chronic pain are -- for a variety of reasons -- especially susceptible to the placebo effect.

"When testing meds on headache patients we already know that they have a one-in-three chance of responding positively, even if they're not getting the actual drug," he says.

That makes it difficult for a researcher to know if, for example, that helmet-like "spa for the brain" does a better job of reliving your migraine than your own fingertips.

Still, feeling better is feeling better, right? The following represent just a few of the popular gadgets now on the market for do-it-yourself relief:

Gadget Universe's Head Spa Massager

OK, you'll look like an extra from "Star Trek" if you wear this thing in the office or subway, but this portable acupressure helmet has received stellar consumer reviews. Beneath the metal hardware lurks a team of small-fingered people all rubbing your scalp at once -- or at least that's what it's said to feel like.

Collins: "This thing looks hilarious! But every single migraine patient says that having the temples and back of head massaged makes them feel better. Even medical writings from Egypt talk about the benefits of tight bandages. … We've known for a long time that pressure on the head makes people feel better."

KingKong USA's iKong

Studies show that a half-hour nap can give you an energetic second wind. If your eyes ache from staring at the computer, strap these space-age-looking black glasses around your face and lean back in your chair while your forehead, temples and sinuses are stimulated with vibration and heat compression. Crashing waves or crickets chirping are two of the sounds from the natural world from which you can choose as you decompress.

Collins: "This would seem to work on the same principle. Pressure on the head, around the eyes, will likely benefit at least 30 percent. After all, that's the approximate fraction of patients that would benefit from almost any kind of therapy!"

Brookstone's iSqueeze

It looks like a pair of ski boots halved and melded together. Once your legs and feet are in place, the machine tightens around your calves like a blood pressure cuff, releases, then tightens again. A rolling sensation under your feet is optional, but who wouldn't want what feels like a small tennis ball rolling and pressing into her arch?

Hint: when justifying this rather pricey investment to your significant other, remind him or her that he or she will be off the hook forever for foot rubs.

Collins: "iSqueeze mimics Sequential Suppression Stockings, which we use in the hospital to prevent deep vein thrombosis after surgery. We use them on anyone who is unable to get up and do a lot of walking. I would recommend that a person considering this purchase go to Brookstone and try it out first, because I have known patients that can't tolerate it because it squeezes too hard."

Wagan Total Rest Heated Massage Magnetic Cushion

Sitting at a desk all day can be hard on your butt and back, so why not strap one of those massage cushions people use in the car to your chair?

The Wagan model has a low back and a sleek black design -- totally inconspicuous. No one needs to know that you're on the receiving end of a new-age heated therapeutic back rub as you finish those reports. Plus it's got magnets! They're supposed to be good for you, right?

Collins: "There's a lot of stuff out there in popular literature about magnets, but not much in the medical lit. I am very skeptical due to the principles of basic physics. Most of the magnets in these sorts of devices are not strong enough to hold a piece of paper to a door, so how could they penetrate the skin? I have patients who swear they make their headaches go away, and I don't argue with them. But most of them have already been in an MRI machine, which has an extremely powerful, superconducting magnetic field. No patient has ever said that going through the MRI has made them feel better."

Still, Collins says magnetic devices in feel-better gadgets are harmless. Only those wearing pacemakers should avoid them.

While these gadgets may not prove to be the solution to all of your aches and pains, at least they're not terribly likely to hurt you anywhere -- except, possibly, your wallet.

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