The pseudoscientific treatments turning athletes and sports stars into influencers for woo Elissar Gerges The Skeptic

The term “snake oil” is used to describe modern pseudoscientific treatments and products that claim to offer different health benefits for a diverse set of medical conditions. Historically, the term arose in America in 1916, when Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil was promoted by the former cowboy as a universal remedy. The Pure Food and Drug Act revealed that the product is fraudulent and that, in fact, it was lacking any snake oil.

In the contemporary educated society of the 21st century, “snake oil” products persist, and they flourish within the domain of sports science, where marketing has superseded science. Companies target international events, high profile athletes, and other social media figures with a large number of followers to endorse a certain product, capitalising on brand association to increase sales even when evidence of product efficacy is lacking.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, alternative therapies and pseudoscientific marketing are rife among athletes, some wrapped in colourful tape, others bearing cupping bruises, and more recently some using the Q-Collar and the TaoPatch. It is a common strategy for manufacturers to ‘demonstrate’ that their product works by getting a high-profile athlete or celebrity to endorse the product. The company implicitly affiliates its product with the success and fame of the athlete or celebrity.

The Olympics, for example, is a significant marketing opportunity that exposes viewers to a variety of sports-related pseudoscience and dubious products. The cupping trend is common among athletes, often among swimmers – such as Michael Phelps who was spotted with circular marks in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Many athletes have followed suit, like Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers, and Akira Namba of Team Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as celebrities such as The RockGwyneth Paltrow, and Haily Baldwin, among others.

Cupping is a technique that has crossed numerous cultures. Like other alternative therapies, cupping is not an evidence-based practice. A 2020 meta-analysis review shows that clinical studies on cupping are highly biased, the specific physiological mechanisms that underpin the cupping therapy are unclear, and the quality of evidence is low. Most cupping proponents are drawn to the appeal to antiquity or appeal to ancient wisdom, the logical fallacy that a certain practice or product is good simply because it is traditional.

Other athletes are using the KT tape, also known as the kinesiology tape, which is often taped on shoulders, knees, thighs, ankles, or stomach. According to the company’s website, KT tape is designed to provide drug-free pain relief and support to muscles, ligaments, and tendons. However, the current evidence does not support this product for short-term pain relief, according to a 2021 study.

Despite the lack of plausibility that a drug-free tape applied to the surface of the skin could help resolve pain in a muscle or tendon, KT Tape was used in the 2020 Olympics by several athletes, such as Katrin HoltwickYuan Cao, and Anne Tuxen. The KT Tape company is the official sponsor of eight athletes across a range of sports – again, partnering with athletes has boosted the product’s profile and increased its sales, as the visibility created by athletes led to a significant increase in consumer usage. When people see an athlete using a specific product or therapy, they assume it is based on good science because athletics and health intersect, thus supporting the market of pseudoscience in sports.

When athletes post a photo of themselves on their verified social media accounts during cupping therapy or while exercising wearing KT tape, it increases the visibility of the product which in turn surges its popularity. This is referred to as the exposure effect. Consumers prefer products or practices that they are regularly exposed to and thus become familiar with. However, the familiarity principle is not correlated with a product’s efficacy. Due to the vast number of online followers and the physical fitness of athletes, even a casual reference to alternative therapies or pseudoscientific products could encourage viewers to use the product.

The human inclination for instant gratification also exacerbates this issue – we seek immediate results, including in our health and fitness endeavors, leading us to seek shortcuts over the sustained, consistent effort required for long-term fitness development.

This is not unique to the Olympics. Pseudoscience is pervasive in sports, specifically with pain management products and recovery strategies which are highly subjective: Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training, cryotherapy, acupuncture, nasal strips, and hydration treatments to list a few. There are many research studies on cryotherapy, cupping, nutritional supplements, energy bracelets, hydrotherapy, or kinesiology tape, but quantity does not mean quality. Despite the vast number of studies, compelling evidence is lacking.

An athlete or celebrity wearing or endorsing a product says nothing about its efficacy. As consumers, we are overloaded with media content and unchecked information. Be skeptical of unfalsifiable claims, vague language, over-reliance on anecdotes, lack of peer review, conflict of interest, and in-house research funded and conducted by the same company promoting the product.

It is unfortunate, but sometimes athletes are simply walking advertisements for medical pseudoscience.

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Whether it’s magical tape, blood flow restriction, cryotherapy, acupuncture or nasal strips, professional sport remains a magnet for unproven and disproven therapies
The post The pseudoscientific treatments turning athletes and sports stars into influencers for woo appeared first on The Skeptic.