Category Archives: olympics

Performing the Oldest Tricks in the Newest Ways

Katherine suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in her hands, and has found that wearing tight bracelets or wrapping fingers with tape often reduces the amount of pain she feels. My uncle used to wear a copper bracelet, presumably for the same reason. My mother wraps her legs with compression bandages when her varicose veins cause her legs to hurt. She would also similarly wrap our legs as kids when we had growing pains. Athletes have been known to compress injured areas with tape or support braces. In the Olympics, volleyball players were seen with taped fingers and shoulders. In the far east, acupuncture was developed to relieve pain. All of these treatments for pain have one thing in common. They involve touch stimulus of the area at or near where the pain exists.

The subject of pain relief was restimulated for me last fall when I was introduced to the gate control theory of pain in a neurobiology class. At the simplest level, the notion is that normal touch known as somatosensation can interfere with nociception, the sensation of pain. This made me rethink why Katherine found pain relief from wearing bracelets. This prompted me to think further on all of the similar methods of pain control I had encountered as well as the tendency for someone that is exerting themselves to not feel low level chronic pain. From an evolutionary perspective it seems reasonable that feeling pain is generally not good when demands are being placed on the body. People have been taking advantage of this characteristic ever since.

The original theory was developed in the 60s when it was well accepted that pain was part of the somatosensory system. Now, the there are those that think nociception is exclusively part of the interoceptive system, also known as the visceral or autonomic nervous system. This is the system that helps us to maintain the environmental balance in our bodies. It tells us to eat and what to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, warm up by shivering and finding warmth, to cool down by sweating and seeking shade, and much more. It basically maintains our bodies. It does this in part by producing input into our higher thought through emotion and is affected by emotional feedback.

This leads me to an interesting experiment published in 1997. If 1/3 of the neurons leading into a section of the somatosensory cortex(SI) of a monkey were visceroreceptive, it is clear that there is some overlap. Considering that there isn’t extensive communication between the SI and emotion centers such as the insula, it seems likely that the inhibition of nociception by somatosensory probably occurs in the spinal cord as the gate theory suggests.

The next question of importance is what is the mechanism at work with Kerri Walsh’s Kinesio tape? They, like many before them, attribute their success to a special property of their proprietary method. In this case, they think it is from improved circulation. They even have a published study. From looking at the “sham” treatment on the third (390) page, it is evident that they aren’t differentiating their treatment from the gate control theory of pain. The “sham” isn’t producing tension, thus it isn’t significant stimulus to have gate control kick in.

I would go further and say that this is a poorly performed study for two reasons. First, their “sham” treatment is likely to not produce the placebo effect. A reasonable person might be inclined to laugh at such a crude tape job. Second, if I wanted to show a more significant improvement from one treatment over another, I would assign that treatment to more seriously injured individuals. If one looks at table 1 on the fifth (392) page, the KT group is the more injured group. My opinion of JOSPT is not high to say the least.

At the end of the day, the point is that Kinesio Tape is likely just a new incarnation of a trick that is probably thousands of years old. The difference is that maybe we are approaching the day where we will understanding the underlying mechanisms.

Unsophisticated Olympic Coverage

I have been remiss in my work on Weordan and in posting on this blog in large part due to watching the Olympics too much and at the times that I’m usually the most productive. I have seen the technical analysis done by NBC fail in two different situations which indicate a lack of technical aptitude. To a large degree, it reinforces the notion that while experience is respected, many people get a free ride based upon experience rather than real ability.

The most recent failure that I’ve noticed occurred during the Phelps 100m butterfly win. The people at NBC just stated that Phelps must have won by a fingernail. The fact is that the sensor in the pool is touch activated and can’t be sensitive enough to be triggered by a fingernail touch. Otherwise, water sloshing up against it would set off a false positive. It has to have a significant lack of sensitivity. Cavic might have touched first, but he didn’t touch hard enough to trigger the sensor. Because the sensors are there, the definition of finishing is touching the wall hard enough to trigger it.

The far uglier failure was with the gymnastics competition, especially the men’s. The difficulty portion of the scoring isn’t well calibrated between the events, especially in the men’s competition. This means that scores in certain events are generally higher than in others. Since the competitors are distributed between different stations, their scores aren’t comparable unless they are in the same group or until the end. As I was sitting there listening to the technical commentary where this was being explained and a guess was being made, I was wondering why they didn’t normalize the scores to get an idea of who was leading. This is often done when making fiscal or financial judgements, as different seasons are more active than others. The same could be applied to gymnastics, which would have made it easier to tell what was going on and actually enjoy the race instead of just wonder who was really ahead.

I would be extremely embarrassed if I were them.