Listener, Nick, sent in the following e-mail:
For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to lose weight the old fashioned way. Eat less, move more. Today my personal trainer suggested this weight loss clinic that uses some foam wrapping and infrared lasers. My trainer said she’d tried it and it works and gave me the web site. I’m looking over the website and I’m not buying it. But I’m not that good of a skeptic and don’t know why I’m not buying it. I just know, I’m not buying it. Would the skeptics be so kind as to tell me why this doesn’t work? Thanks, and I love the show.
Wow. This is one of those websites that just overwhelms you with pseudoscientific technobabble. There is far too much nonsense here to tackle in a single blog, so I am going to focus on two claims – the low level laser therapy (LLLT) and the infrared body wrap.
But first, for a little background, it’s interesting to note that spas have had a tradition for literally hundreds of years of promoting wellness (that is, there own financial wellnes) through pure BS. The basic marketing strategy is to convince people with disposable income and too sedentary a lifestyle to come in, relax, and passively receive exotic treatments that will cure whatever ails them. Spas have often been on the cutting edge of health pseudoscience. Today they incorporate the latest fads in CAM – from aromatherapy to reflexology.
The infrared bodywrap is in the sweet-spot of the spa tradition – and now you can enjoy the same exploitation at home. The basic claim here is that the wrap system contains infrared radiation, which penetrates the skins and (you know the drill) – removes toxins, increases blood flow and oxygen delivery, and melts away fat and cellulite. Right.It promises you will lose weight and inches.
Of course, all such wraps do make you lose weight and inches – by dehydration via sweating. That’s the core trick here. Of course, water loss is not fat loss and in fact is counterproductive. But it is highly profitable.
The infrared claim is not new, either. They are deliberately vague on this topic. How does a fabric contain infrared? I mean, other than by the normal method by which everything with heat will radiate away energy, mostly in the infrared. So this is just a fancy (read “deceptive”) way of saying that their infrared wrap system is a heat wrap. Which makes you sweat.
The low level laser therapy is a more high-tech bit of pseudoscience. Also known as low-energy laser or cold laser, this has been a popular item among some physical therapists, chiropractors, pain specialists, and others. The concept here is that the laser is in a frequency that is not absorbed much by the skin, so that it penetrates to the deeper layers – and that’s where the magic happens. You know the drill – removes toxins, increases blood flow and oxygen delivery. But the LLLT also allegedly stimulates the nerves to release endorphins, which treats pain and addiction.They also claim, of course, that it “elevates the immune system.”
That last bit about stimulating nerves is barely plausible. The other claims of pure hockum. At least something physical is happening, so that means there could be some physiological effect going on. But like any medical intervention, in order to honestly make any clinical claims the specific treatment should be tested under proper conditions (double blind, etc) for each specific indication.
Such research has been done. (Here is a good summary. Yes, it’s by an insurance company and ultimately is used to justify not paying for LLLT. But never-the-less it contains a good summary of the research, with a blurb on each study. And btw, I have reviewed these types of summaries for insurance companies before. So sometimes they use independent academic review, and regardless of their motives such work tends to be thorough and legitimate.) We see a familiar pattern for treatments with little or no effect – many poor-quality studies with results all over the place, and a few better quality studies that are negative or ambiguous. Also the effect seems easiest to demonstrate for the most subjective symptoms – like pain. The more objective outcomes, like wound healing, are clearly negative.
Cockrane and other reviews of the literature conclude that there is emerging definitive evidence that LLLT does not work for wound healing (which cuts to the heart of many of the claims made for it). For more subjective outcomes, like pain, the evidence is equivocal and “larger and better studies are required.”
The bottom line is that, while mildly interesting, there is yet to be a single proven indication for LLLT.
That makes it perfect for the spa. It is being researched by legitimate researchers, it’s all fancy and high tech, and there is a long list of common and often subjective ailments for which it is being considered.
Also it is a medical device. That means it must be cleared for use as a medical device by the FDA. What almost always happens in such cases (and is true here also) is that dubious companies using such devices will proudly state that they have been “cleared” by the FDA, stated in such a way as to encourage the false impression that the specific application they are selling has been “approved” by the FDA, which is not true.
In the end the claims made here are cookie-cutter spa and supplement industry marketing nonsense.