Recovery Revolution: How Sports Tech Dethroned Opioids

Recovery Revolution: How Sports Tech Dethroned Opioids

For years, pain medication has been relied on to treat athletes' injuries but as the country wakes up to the dangers of opioid addiction, more and more trainers and sports medicine doctors alike are turning to mind-boggling, high-tech (and pill-free) treatments to aid in a player's recovery, pain management and healing.

Calves crossed, forearms folded, gluteus nestled comfortably into a soft surface, we adjudicate seemingly impossible feats. "He's not going to make that," or "That landing was off," we scoff as the super humans on screen bend, stretch, leap, propel and flip themselves, putting every muscle and joint through immense stress in the name of competition and, additionally, entertainment for those of us watching comfortably from our couches. But what becomes of these bodies after the finish line is crossed, the game ends or the results are in? When the adrenaline ebbs away, what's left is a composition of cells ambling towards recovery, and the technology helping them to do it.

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The sports wellness field is overwhelmed with options promising quick fixes and opportunities to hop on new trends. While many of these treatments might administer temporary relief, often the remedies that can create a lasting impact (generally the most sought-after) are those that weren't initially intended for sports at all, but accident rehabilitation. Take the TheraGun, for example, an invention created by a Los Angeles-based chiropractor, Dr. Jason Wersland. Formulated to manage his own pain after a motorcycle accident, the vibrating, power tool-resembling device uses a combination of frequency, amplitude and torque to, in Wersland's words, cause a "percussive force on the nervous system [that] overrides pain signals to the brain."

It can be used on your upper and lower back, legs, hips, glutes, feet, chest, shoulder and even hands. The foam ball is run over the necessary areas, producing what feels like "woodpecker-like" vibrations of 33-40 jabs per second, relaxing the muscle (think someone lightly scissoring their hands over your body at hyper speed). It's like getting a deep tissue massage that alleviates lactic acid build-up and soreness in minutes, and the results can compound over time for long-term change. The product quickly gained popularity among pro athletes, and suddenly, Atlanta Falcons player Julio Jones, experiencing cramps mid-game, was running off the field to use his TheraGun and returning pain-free. Boston Celtics player Kyrie Irving and Los Angeles Rams defensive back Marcus Peters have also been seen using TheraGuns mid-game.


"I treated a starting pitcher in the MLB who had a chronic shoulder pain that he had been dealing with for some time," Wersland says. "After one treatment with a TheraGun, he said he had never felt anything get to the root of the problem. He said he actually felt the knot deep in his shoulder release and thanked me over and over again."

Wersland has a plethora of stories like these. He speaks of a track athlete who used the product after feeling her hamstring tear during a warm-up — after using the TheraGun, she ran her fastest time later that day and qualified for the Olympics. Now, TheraGuns are found in every major league sports locker room across the States, even at the 2018 Super Bowl, according to Wersland. Its popularity has now permeated entertainment, with the company experiencing an influx of A-List celebrities purchasing the device like normal people (that is, directly from the site as opposed to reaching out to test the technology for free). Justin Bieber and the Hadid sisters are among those who have sought out TheraGuns, something Wersland claims is a response to the fact that, unlike many other sports wellness products, TheraGun emphasizes righting your body when it's at rest, as opposed to during workouts.

Dr. Wersland's mission with TheraGun, like many cutting-edge products at the forefront of sports wellness, is to shift pain management away from opioids. But localized percussive therapy is just one of many techniques to propel recovery. Serbian sports doctor Marijana Kovacevic, who has treated many soccer players in her country as well as athletes around the world, refused to use painkillers to treat her patients, claiming pain is our body's alarm system and something "that shouldn't be instantly extinguished but followed and treated accordingly so the pain would go away by itself." Famous for her unconventional techniques, Kovacevic has been nicknamed the "placenta doctor" for rumors surrounding her use of female placenta fluid in treatments. The former manager of the Premier League football club Liverpool, Rafa Benitez, even petitioned to bring Kovacevic on permanently after her remarkable impact on players. Kovacevic recalls one soccer player arriving in Belgrade with a muscular rupture and, following her treatment, scoring a goal with that same leg in a game...five days later.

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Years of research in her specialty, muscle regeneration (the body's natural reparation of torn muscles), have culminated in her ability to heal injuries — that usually require a month of recovery — in five days. Kovacevic uses a special machine called a "Hidrofor" that massages muscles using "an electromagnetic field" and "physiological gel so the skin would remain unharmed after the therapy," a treatment combination that can even heal years-old injuries. In layman's terms, the cosmetic roller-massage machine goes to work on the muscles while the electricity heats the body tissue. "[Patients] will leave with fully healed muscles on which there are no traces left of the previous injury — the muscle is fully regenerated on which there is no indication of scarring or fibroses," she says. No injections, no pain medication, no doping.

Treatments involving either the influx or the restriction of oxygen have also been quickly gaining popularity among sportsmen and women for their healing and boosting capabilities. In hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which counts Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps among its adherents, patients enter specialized chambers that provide increases in oxygen and pressure, accelerating the healing of crush injuries and other wounds not responding to treatment. There have also been studies looking at the efficacy of hyperbaric oxygen therapy when it comes to alleviating anxiety.

Users are encased in the pod, which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic human hibernation chamber straight out of an '80s sci-fi flick, for 20 minutes apiece.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning (or CVAC) pods mimic high-altitude oxygen levels by restricting O2 and forcing the body to adapt to the increased demand for oxygen. Users are encased in the pod, which resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic human hibernation chamber straight out of an '80s sci-fi flick, for 20 minutes apiece. The CVAC pod stimulates the production of oxygen-rich blood cells, removes lactic acid and boosts circulation, all of which can improve focus and endurance. The body responds and adapts to physical stressors at play during CVAC treatments, like changes to air pressure, temperature and oxygen levels, in the way it might to aerobic (low-intensity cardio like jogging) and anaerobic (high-intensity cardio) exercise. The difference is that users are said to receive many of the same benefits without having to engage in physical activity. Tennis star Novak Djokovic is said to be a big fan. Allen Ruszkowski, the CEO of CVAC, says athletes have reported personal records in their respective sports after incorporating CVAC sessions in their training. Like Wersland, he hopes tools like CVAC will minimize athletes' and coaches' dependence on pharmaceuticals when it comes to their healing.

Of course, it's not just bodily injuries athletes must overcome to get back in the game but those affecting the brain and nervous system, too. Like Wersland, robotics engineer Kevin Maher developed a device as a solution to a personal challenge. After doctors told Maher and his wife that their four-year-old daughter, who was afflicted with cerebral palsy, would improve her balance with intensive vestibular stimulation (things like somersaults and log rolls) every day, Maher designed a tool using a carseat and plywood that would strap in the user and flip her around. Almost two decades on, Maher's original carseat-and-plywood prototype evolved into a "multi-axis rotating chair integrated with an interactive laser targeting system" called the GyroStim. Users are bounced upside down and around while using pinpoint lasers to hit certain marks; think of a carnival ride mixed with an intense VR video game. Maher explains GyroStim is designed to challenge an individual's cognition and sensorimotor systems. The technology has since brought back NHL superstar Sidney Crosby after a career-ending concussion, and now athletes are banging down the door to incorporate the brain-based training into their routines. One unnamed MMA big shot undertook five sessions prior to his title fight in Vegas and told Maher after winning he made moves that wouldn't have been possible prior to GyroStim.

"[He] texted me right after the fight saying he was never hit during the entire fight," Maher remembers. "He said he saw every punch and kick coming, like the other guy was in slow motion…The gains are real and they definitely persist. They don't just wear off like stimulants, supplements and other athletic performance enhancing products."

Much of the technology athletes use today is derived from treatments, performance enhancers and remedies dating back decades, centuries or even millennia. Altitude simulators were deployed as asthma treatments in the 1930s, and a proto-form of cryotherapy, the hottest (or coldest) new trend among athletes, was used by the ancient Greeks to treat inflammatory conditions (it's said that Hippocrates used ice and snow in his treatments). Cryotherapy surfaced again in the 1970s when Japan's Dr. Toshima Yamaguchi started using extreme cold exposure to treat arthritis and developed the first cryo chambers (nitrogen gas-filled boxes that reach temperatures much colder than possible in nature, as in -246 degrees Fahrenheit). Patients don gloves, footwear, tube socks, mask and ear protection and step into the chamber for three minutes — the time may increase as your tolerance and the frequency of your visits do. Michael Perrine, the owner of Vitality NYC, a New York City-based wellness clinic that offers cryotherapy, among other treatments, explains that while cryotherapy has only become known to athletes recently, its reputation has spread like wildfire as a "drugless method of lowering inflammation and pain reduction." Results are felt immediately, ranging from inflammation reduction to mood stabilization to accelerated tissue repair. "I think activating the body's innate healing capabilities is going to take precedence over external supplements and nutrient loading," Perrine says. "That's a powerful shift in paradigm."

A CVAC pod

Like TheraGun, cryotherapy has been heartily embraced by celebrities (Snoop Dogg recently posted a video of himself undergoing treatment) and, also, members of the general public. As wellness becomes a bigger and bigger industry, more and more treatments that originated in sports medicine (or accident rehabilitation) are now trickling down to the masses. Perhaps there's no bigger example of this in recent history than Gatorade. Originally created by a group of University of Florida scientists in 1965 as a way for the campus football team, the Gators (hence the name), to replenish electrolytes, boost energy and increase hydration, Gatorade has been heartily embraced by everyone from weekend warriors quenching their thirst after a morning jog to twenty-somethings looking to cure a raging hangover.

"He said he saw every punch and kick coming, like the other guy was in slow motion..."

Today, treatments like cryotherapy are becoming increasingly more affordable (a session goes for an average of $70), and more and more regular people are joining up with groups of friends to go in on a $600 TheraGun, says the company. It's the "What's Their Secret?" effect: As athletes and celebrities take to social media to share images of themselves experiencing the sub-zero wonders of a cryo chamber or the soothing effects of the TheraGun, more and more of the public will follow suit — if anything just to satiate curiosity as to whether or not the technology really impacts one's well-being.

So if our bodies respond this well to below-freezing cold, what happens when we engulf ourselves in extreme heat? Well, before Sunlighten mPulse, not much. Saunas were an effective way of sweating out toxins, sure, but only full-spectrum infrared saunas like the mPulse provide near, mid and far infrared at their peak wavelengths — each penetrating the body differently and providing different health benefits: detoxification, weight loss, pain relief, anti-aging, cardio and relaxation. The heat increases circulation, reducing lactic acids and promoting regeneration. "As your body absorbs high levels of infrared, it begins to heal at the cellular level," claims Sunlighten marketing director Brooke Basaldua.

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Volleyball player Kelsey Robinson, Team USA Olympic medalist, used to have severe back pain from repeatedly landing on the ground. But now her knees and back are able to bounce back seamlessly after repeated sessions in the mPulse, she claims. She also says her endurance and flexibility have grown and she no longer feels lethargic after a five-hour training session. She hopes the rest of the sports industry will similarly embrace recovery technology.

"I think activating the body's innate healing capabilities is going to take precedence over external supplements and nutrient loading," Perrine says. "That's a powerful shift in paradigm."

"At 25, my rehab, recovery is just as important as my weights and skill work on the court," Robinson says. "I think we'll start to see more of an emphasis on technology that can help us see or heal the things that can cause pain or problems later on down the road. This will allow the athlete to play for a longer time at a higher level without having to just maintain their body. The athlete will be able to compete at 40 [years-old] pain-free."

This reality might be closer than it appears. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots' 40-year-old quarterback, has garnered a reputation for enthusiastically experimenting with recovery technology, even creating his own line of pajamas with Under Armour that absorb infrared wavelengths emitted by the body and reflect them back as "far infrared" — otherwise known as a sleepwear sauna. To his credit, Brady is tapping into a gold mine. As effective as sessions with Marijana Kovacevic or frequent go-rounds on the GyroStim, may be, many athletes want to self-medicate in the comfort of their own space. One advantage pharmaceuticals have enjoyed for so long is the fact they can be pulled out anytime, anywhere, to manage the pain.

"This will allow the athlete to play for a longer time at a higher level without having to just maintain their body. The athlete will be able to compete at 40 [years-old] pain-free."

It hasn't taken long for more advanced methods of recovery to follow suit. NormaTec's patented compression technology (it comes in boots and full-body suits) enhances circulation and can be transported from the gym to the game and home again. Originally formulated by the late physician and bioengineer Dr. Laura Jacobs to treat patients with circulatory-related disorders, NormaTec is a powerful two-hour deep tissue massage in minutes, with pulsing, gradients and distal release to alleviate pain. Now, NormaTec's CEO (and Dr. Laura Jacobs' son), Gilad Jacobs, reveals 97 percent of pro teams use NormaTec for rehab benefits. From the Lakers to the Red Sox, teams are constructing NormaTec recovery rooms and traveling with the systems. Like TheraGun, entertainment giants are catching on — Drake and Zac Efron both organically shared images of themselves using NormaTec — as well as fitness's most famous faces: early-adopters LeBron James, Simone Biles, Russell Wilson and Justin Verlander. "#NormaTecandChill" has even become a popular hashtag. Whereas admitting the use of external recovery resources might have once been considered a sign of weakness, or at the very least laughable, the widespread adoption of products like NormaTec proves a shift in how athletes approach their physical (and mental) wellbeing.

"As fitness centers offer access to top recovery technology, more mainstream athletes will follow suit and make recovery a top priority," NormaTec CEO Gilad Jacobs says. He continues, "With more athletes continuing to compete seriously into later years, the boundaries of human performance are truly being challenged...and sports technology will continue to become more portable, easier and more convenient."

Herein lies the power of social media to expose athletes and normal folks alike to increasingly imaginative and diverse methods of injury recovery. With each video proliferating on Twitter of Kyrie Irving running off the court to be shot with a TheraGun, and every Instagram showing Floyd Mayweather smiling from deep within the depths of a cryo chamber, we are slowly veering away from medication and supplements to instead embrace cutting-edge products that rehabilitate the body and mind from the outside in. Wellness doesn't have to be a distant goal, but a lifestyle. If the same time and energy is afforded to recovery as it is training, there might soon be no limit to human performance.

Photo via Getty