Remember those machines from the 1950s that used to jiggle a person’s fat in an attempt to rid the body of cellulite?
These days, a more sophisticated generation of those machines, which vibrate the entire body, is claiming it can do a lot more than eliminate cellulite.
Proponents say whole body vibration can increase muscle strength and flexibility, fight osteoporosis, improve balance and posture, increase circulation and reduce pain.
But skeptics say the claims are highly exaggerated, and that the machines might actually be dangerous. They want consumers to exercise caution if they’re going to use them.
Unlike those old-fashioned machines, the new technology relies on more aggressive vibration to stimulate muscles. One of the most popular, the Power Plate, features a vibrating platform that oscillates 30 to 50 times per second. Each time, it stimulates the nervous system and creates a reflex in the body that causes the muscles to contract.
Recent news reports say celebrities like Madonna and Heidi Klum are using it in their workouts, and the Power Plate Web site lists dozens of college and professional sports teams as using vibration training in their regimens, too.
“You’re getting a lot more muscular activity,” said Dennis Sall, a chiropractor in Mount Sinai, N.Y., who began using the Power Plate to train his patients about a year ago. “This is a great way to jump start the metabolism.”
Ultimately, he said, that causes the body to burn more calories.
Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, said that’s true.
“There’s no doubt that the muscles are contracting, and you’re burning calories and strengthening muscles at the same time,” he said.
However, he thinks it needs a lot more research to back up the claims that the machine can do a lot more than just build muscle.
A quick glance at the “applications” portion of the Power Plate Web site indicates that the device can play a significant role in anti-aging, sports performance and rehabilitation. One section seems to imply that it can be used to treat everything from emphysema to multiple sclerosis to whiplash.
According to Scott Hopson, director of research, education and training for Power Plate USA, dozens of studies using Power Plate have been published in peer review journals, including the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, the American Journal of Geriatrics Society and Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
“It’s very effective for improving balance, strength and preventing the muscle and bone loss that comes with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia and cerebral palsy,” he said. “One of the biggest secondary impairments of degenerative diseases is loss of muscle fibers and the ability to use them.
Vibration is a great for fighting against that.”
Hopson added that studies have shown that vibration can increase blood flow to muscle, tendon and ligament tissues and stimulate the release of hormones that are needed for healing damaged tissues.
But Westrich said it’s not the quantity but the quality of the research that concerns him.
“If you go to their Web site and look at all their studies, there is not very good science behind it,” he said. “I found only a few randomized prospective studies. There is some basic science studies about vibration … but a lot of it has nothing to do with their particular device.”
For example, many of the studies on osteoporosis, which are cited in Power Plate’s information packet, were conducted by Clinton T. Rubin, a professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Rubin, furious that his studies are being used by the company, said, “I’ve never studied the Power Plate at all, and the vibration magnitude we used was 50 times lower than what they are using.”
Rubin works with a different company that also makes a vibration machine but one that uses much less intensity. He said his research shows that minimal vibration can stimulate bone growth, but he said, “Power Plate misuses that.”
“I’m furious that what Power Plate is doing is dangerous to people,” Rubin said. “It’s dangerous because there is a huge scientific body of evidence that high vibration magnitudes can cause lower back pain, circulation disorders, hearing loss, balance problems and vision problems.”
Dr. Jeffrey Fine recently ordered two Power Plates for two hospitals that he works at.
“Physical medicine rehab is a specialty where we apply different types of physical energy for physiologic benefit,” he said. “We considered this a newly identified modality to treat a variety of different medical conditions.”
Currently, Fine is looking into how the Power Plate will help patients with impaired sensation from diabetic neuropathy. He pointed to studies conducted at Harvard University that demonstrated how other devices that incorporate vibration technology have proven useful in stimulating multiple joints and ultimately improving balance and gait problems.
Westrich still isn’t convinced vibration technology is for everybody. For one thing, he’s not sure how useful it would be to treat osteoporosis in his elderly patients.
“I’m not sure they can tolerate being vibrated like a piece of Jell-O,” he said.
Debbe Geiger is a freelance writer specializing in health and science.