I just got a message from the United States Equestrian Federation about a device that – apparently – will pretty much take care of everything that could ever possibly go wrong with a horse. It’s called a TheraPlate®, and I’m so excited that my first thought is that I should run out and buy at least one – maybe a backup in case the first one ever stops working.
According to the ad, here’s what it can be used for:
- Increasing circulation
- Increasing bone strength
- Increasing muscle mass
- Reducing swelling and inflammation
- Reducing Injuries
- Speeding Healing Time
- Improving Joint Health and Function
- Improving Balance
- Reducing Stress
- Preventing Injuries
- Relieving Pain
- Increasing Hoof Growth
- Increasing Digital Cushion Circulation
- Maintaining Muscle Mass on Stalled Horses
- Warm up and Cool Down
The USEF ad is accompanied by pictures of three people who won ribbons on their horses (and somehow all managed to get Theraplate® posters in their hands for the picture), all at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival. (Somehow, I’m having trouble getting my head around the fact that the USEF is sending out an ad for a device that advertises that is was used at a competition sponsored by another product for which the USEF advertises, but this article is not about that).
I suppose that I could just take the impressive claims at face value, and go with testimonials about how great the product is. However, skeptic that I am, I thought that I might look into the claims and see what the evidence has to say about them..
I do think it would be rather closed-minded of me, actually, to simply dismiss the device out of hand. Asking your horse to stand a jiggling plate would not seem to jump out as a way to health and prosperity, so to dismiss the whole thing out of hand might be understandable. But I’m not like that, no, I rather enjoy looking for the evidence behind the claims: to see if there’s any “there” there, as it were. So, here we go.
The first thing that jumps out is that exactly none of the claims made in the ad – zero, zilch, nada – are supported with any references. That is, the ad is asking you to swallow the claims being made at face value. While that might be a persuasive approach to some people, to others (like me) they are the medical equivalent of claiming that you just saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex walking down the middle of your street. Possible, I suppose, but all the same, if you came to me telling me that you just saw a 9 ton dinosaur strolling past the cars in your neighborhood, I hope that you wouldn’t mind if I asked you for a picture. But I digress.
Let’s look at the claims. The first one, “increasing circulation” stands out as a big whopper. When it comes to blood, the horse is what’s known as a closed system, that is, there’s no exchange of blood with any of the outside surroundings. What the horse has is what it gets. “Increasing circulation” is such a commonly used bogus claim that I even wrote a whole article about it.
I was particularly intrigued by the claim that the device “Increases Digital Cushion Circulation.” The digital cushion is an important structure in the foot that functions mostly as a shock absorber. The “Increasing circulation” claim is curious mostly because the digital cushion normally doesn’t have much of a blood supply at all (relative to other structures). It’s made up of connective tissue bundles, a bit of cartilage, and some fat cells. The blood supply to the digital cushion is, according to the best study ever done on the structure, “remarkably poor.” And that’s probably a good thing, because it seems to me that the last thing that you’d ever want is a bunch of blood vessels in an area where shock is absorbed – they’d just bruise and bleed. So as jaw-dropping as some of the other claims are, I was a bit dumbfounded by this one.
Still – back to the T. Rex example – rather than just poo-pooing the whole thing out of hand (which, in my opinion, isn’t really that bad of an idea), I set out to look for evidence. So, I went to PUBMED, which is the on-line searchable database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, with over 25 million citations. And I searched for studies on vibration therapy in horses. I found one. One. It was published in the Polish Journal of Veterinary Science (a journal to which I do not subscribe) back in 2013. It studied the effect of vibration plates on a variety of blood measurements. And they found, “Acute short-term WBVE produced a decrease in serum cortisol (p = 0.02) and creatine-kinase (p = 0.02) values. Clinical parameters, hematology, fibrinogen, lactate, IGF-I, GGT, creatinine, myeloperoxidase activity and bone marker values were not significantly changed,” which means that a couple of things that they measured changed, but nothing else changed. To most people, that means that the plate didn’t do much of anything.
That’s pretty much it when it comes to published scientific studies on horses, and vibration plates. But not wanting to stop here, I figured I’d go straight to the company website, since they have a “Links to the Science” link on their homepage. So I clicked on that.
Even though they state that there are over 200 peer-reviewed scientific studies on the Theraplate, they list 13, which is OK, I guess. However – and I have to say that this bugs me – exactly NONE of the studies have anything to do with horses. If it were me, and I were making all of these claims about horses, I’d want to have at least some information to support them – but “truth in advertising” is not a standard to which everyone subscribes.
Still, being as open-minded as possible, I looked at each the 13, which, presumable, were selected by the company as the best of the “over 200.” I mean, why else would you choose those 13 when you have over 200 from which to select?
So, in order, as listed on the website as of April 6, 2016 –
- Evaluation of the Effects of a Training Programme for Patients With Prolonged Fatigue on Physiological Parameters and Fatigue Complaints The first study doesn’t even mention vibration plates. Oops, I guess.
- The Effect of 30Hz vs 50Hz passive vibration and duration on skin blood flow in the arm. Vibration at a certain wavelength produces increases in skin blood flow in people. And may help in diabetes. OK… but horses don’t get diabetes…
- Acute Effects of Whole-Body Vibration on Muscle Activity, Strength, and Power. Whole-body vibration may be a potential warm-up procedure for increasing vertical jump height. This effect was shown in one of 4 muscle groups studied. Calls for more research. Horses typically don’t do vertical jumps.
- Power-Plate Stimulates Recovery After Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Rupture A summary of an article published in a “special abstracts issue” of the German Journal of Sports Medicine, concludes that vibration therapy helps human athletes after anterior cruciate surgery of the knee. I can’t find the article, and it’s an abstract, which means that the full study apparently wasn’t, or hasn’t been, published. At least I can’t find it.
- The Feasibility of Whole Body Vibration in Institutionalised Elderly Persons and its Influence on Muscle Performance, Balance and Mobility: A Randomised Controlled Trial. In 24 nursing home residents, the article, while finding some benefits on balance and mobility, concludes, “The supplementary benefit of WBV on muscle performance compared to classic exercise remains to be explored further.”
- Effects of Whole Body Vibration Training on Different Devices on Bone Mineral Density. In a trial of over 100 post-menopausal women, average age about 65, vibration therapy improved bone mass in the back, but not the neck (can’t explain that one). Horses don’t go through menopause, by the way.
- Efficiency of vibration exercise for glycemic control in type 2 diabetes patients. Vibration therapy may help with blood sugar control in people with type-2 diabetes that don’t want to exercise. Doesn’t sound like any horse I’ve ever run across – just sayin’.
- Effect of 6-month whole body vibration training on hip density, muscle strength, and postural control in postmenopausal women: a randomized controlled pilot study. Vibration therapy might help with balance and hip mineral density in post-menopausal women.
- Whole body vibration as an adjunct to static stretching, College students who stretched their hamstring muscles were able to get a little bit more stretch if they used vibration plates.
- Use of Vibration-Assisted Exercise in Fybromyalgia Patients. The link to the study listed – on vibration therapy in fibromyalgia – doesn’t work. I couldn’t find it, either. I did find a review from 2015 on vibration therapy in fibromyalgia which concluded, “Whole-body vibration could be an adequate treatment for fibromyalgia… However, this conclusion must be treated with caution because the paucity of trials and the marked differences between existing trials in terms of protocol, intervention, and measurement tools hampered the comparison of the trials.” Fibromyalgia has not been reported in horses. Well, let me back up just a bit. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if somebody made up the diagnosis in horses, but it hasn’t been reported in veterinary journals.
- Whole-Body Vibration Induced Adaptation in Knee Extensors; Consequences of Initial Strength, Vibration Frequency, and Joint Angle. “This study shows that muscle length during training affects the angle of knee joint at which the maximal extension moment was generated.” However – and this is curious, particularly in a list of references that are supposed to support the product – it wasn’t affected by vibration training.
- Effects of 6 weeks of periodized squat training with or without whole-body vibration on short-term adaptations in jump performance within recreationally resistance trained men. Adding vibration therapy to squat training didn’t make a significant difference.
- Effects of whole-body vibration training on sprint running kinematics and explosive strength performance. In a study done in Greece, people who trained on a vibration plate for 6 weeks had improved muscle performance when compared to people who didn’t train at all. OK, but, seriously, what about comparing them to people who trained without the plate, rather than those who sat on couches and ate souvlaki?
ASIDE: As a reward for reading this far, and not finding much of use, at least you can find a good recipe for souvlaki if you CLICK HERE.
As for testimonials, well, I don’t really think much of those. If I’d forked over 6 thousand dollars for a vibration plate for a horse, I’d probably be inclined to think well of the thing, just so as not to feel as if I’d been bamboozled. I can’t imagine that the things would hurt a horse, unless he fell off or something. But honestly, between the unsupported, bombastic, and, in some cases, a bit silly claims, the lack of any supporting evidence in horses, and the weakness and irrelevance to horses of the studies provided on the manufacturer’s website, I’d have a hard time advising anyone to thow 6K at this thing.
The whole thing strikes me as really curious. I’ve seen vibration plates, too. In fact, there’s one in the gym where I work out. In the corner. It was a big fad a few years back. Not so much anymore.
Oh, one last thing. Take a look at this article, in the blog Science-Based Medicine. In the most optimistic assessment, vibration plate therapy might do something if you don’t ever get off the couch, but you can probably get the same effects if you just exercise. When it comes to exercise, who likes to do that more than horses?
Whatever your own opinion of the device may be, the claims made for the Theraplate® far exceed the scientific evidence supporting them. Right now, they are just one more instance of putting a jiggly therapeutic cart in front of the horse: so to speak.