Can sticky tape stop sporting aches? With a post-Covid exercise revolution sweeping Britain, our expert assesses some over-the-counter products promising to prevent and treat muscle and joint pains
The coronavirus has kick-started an exercise revolution in the UK, with almost a third of adults increasing their normal levels of physical activity during the lockdown.
But it came at a price, with millions reporting pulled muscles, or knee and ankle injuries, a Bupa poll revealed in June.
Meanwhile, millions have spent more time hunched over their computers at home, increasing the risk of back pain and stiffness. And with limited access to medical services, the majority have had to self-treat.
We asked Tim Allardyce, a physiotherapist at Surrey Physio clinic in Croydon, to assess some over-the-counter products for preventing and treating aching muscles and joints. We then rated them.
‘GUN’ THAT SOOTHES TENSION
‘GUN’ THAT SOOTHES TENSION: HoMedics physio massage gun, £129.99, argos.co.uk
HoMedics physio massage gun, £129.99, argos.co.uk
CLAIM: This battery-powered muscle massaging device comes with three changeable vibrating heads ‘designed to release tight, aching muscles’, says the maker.
The round head is for larger muscle groups, such as those in the thighs; a conical-shaped one is for specific sore points; and the U-shaped head for someone else to use, such as a physiotherapist or partner, to massage the trapezius muscles, which extend from the back and sides of the neck down into the upper back.
EXPERT VERDICT: Massage guns allow you to apply strong pressure on muscles to ease tension and provide pain relief, but they can be uncomfortable because of this pressure. Nevertheless, they numb the pain by relieving compression on nerves from the tense muscle, so massage guns are effective at short-term relief. But it’s certainly not a cheap option. 5/10
WRISTBANDS TO WARD OFF RSI
WRISTBANDS TO WARD OFF RSI: Wristys, £8, putnams.co.uk
Wristys, £8, putnams.co.uk
CLAIM: Made from soft, cushioned neoprene (a synthetic, stretchy material), the maker says these bands support your wrists while you are using your hands and so prevent you from developing repetitive strain injury or RSI — pain in the wrist and arm from repetitive movements.
The maker says the bands work by protecting delicate nerves and tendons and distributing pressure evenly across the wrists. Available in different sizes.
EXPERT VERDICT: RSI is pain from overused muscles, commonly as a result of computer work. These wristbands may have a mildly beneficial effect by keeping your wrist straighter than normal, which reduces the amount of work your muscles and tendons do in supporting your wrists. However, I’m doubtful they will make much difference in preventing RSI.
They don’t provide any obvious support and are simply a barrier between your wrist and the table. The best way to reduce RSI is to stop the repetitive movements causing the problem in the first place. Strengthen these muscles by taking regular breaks and straightening and stretching your arms, wrists and fingers. 2/10
ADHESIVE TAPE TO PREVENT INJURIES
ADHESIVE TAPE TO PREVENT INJURIES: Kinesiology tape, £4, completecareshop.co.uk
Kinesiology tape, £4, completecareshop.co.uk
CLAIM: A flexible, stretchy material that is stuck over joints and muscles before exercise to reduce risk of injury and pain. The manufacturer says it improves circulation and provides support and insulation to muscles and joints.
EXPERT VERDICT: Kinesiology tape has seen a growth in popularity in physiotherapy. It may help prevent pain and injury, even though some recent research found no obvious benefits. It works by lifting the layers of skin fractionally away from the underlying joint or tissue, which reduces the chances of irritation or injury to joints, such as the knee or shoulders, during exertion. It is also thought to interfere with signals sent to the brain by pain receptors in the skin when there is an injury.
This is one of the cheaper tapes and these can be less sticky than more expensive ones and may come off easily. But it is worth a try — and is useful to prevent further injury if you are aware you have a problem area. Always see a doctor if you have a recurring issue. 8/10
CLAIM: An S-shaped, plastic device with different shaped knobs that are said to allow you to massage parts of your back and neck that you cannot normally reach.
The rounded knobs are for a general area such as the lower back; the more pointed knobs are for specific sites such as the trapezius muscles that run down the neck. The maker says it works by ‘eliminating painful knots’ and releasing tight muscles for an increased range of motion.
EXPERT VERDICT: There are lots of questions around muscle knots — and some in physiotherapy research question if they actually exist. But people do feel areas of tension, and rubbing them does seem to provide relief because it stretches the muscle tissue, making it less tense and relieving compression on nerves that transmit pain signals to the brain. So this device can offer therapeutic pain relief — but self-massage is not easy, as it is much harder to relax. 4/10
BATH SALTS FOR POST WORKOUT
Roadsalt, £24, roadsaltbath.co.uk
BATH SALTS FOR POST WORKOUT: Roadsalt, £24, roadsaltbath.co.uk
CLAIM: A bath with these salts can help muscles recover after extreme exertion, says the maker. The salts contain magnesium sulphate that, it claims, can reduce inflammation and help muscles recover from a workout, as well as activated charcoal and bentonite clay (an antibacterial material that turns the bath water black) to ‘draw out’ toxins from the skin.
EXPERT VERDICT: Bath salts have been used for decades to ease aches and pains, but it is still unclear if it’s the bath or the salts that help.
Magnesium sulphate is the same mineral that’s used in Epsom salts, a popular remedy that’s been around for over 300 years. The theory is that it is absorbed through the skin and helps muscles use up lactic acid — a byproduct of respiration created during exercise that can accumulate and cause pain.
Epsom salts are cheaper than this product, which only supplies enough for two baths from a 1kg packet. You could always try just the hot bath first. 3/10
‘GIRDLE’ FOR BACK STRAIN
‘GIRDLE’ FOR BACK STRAIN: Posture back brace, £22.98, prglobalstore.com
CLAIM: The maker describes this as an ‘ultra-comfortable brace’ that helps you sit and stand straighter, relieving pains in the shoulder and back. Made from fabric and adjustable nylon tape, it can be worn under clothing. The straps fasten at the back and support your shoulders. The maker says wearing it helps muscle memory that means your posture gradually improves. Wear for a few hours daily.
EXPERT VERDICT: Posture braces are great — and I recently recommended them to a patient who spends a lot of time hunched over at work. They bring your shoulders back, improving your posture while you are wearing them and so taking the strain off over-used muscles and making you more aware of poor, hunched posture when you are not.
However, posture braces are not a substitute for improving muscle strength in your back through exercise. 8/10
PAIN RELIEF GEL: Deep Relief anti-inflammatory gel, 30g, £4.59, chemist-4-u.com
PAIN RELIEF GEL
Deep Relief anti-inflammatory gel, 30g, £4.59, chemist-4-u.com
CLAIM: Described as a fast-acting pain relief gel that relieves inflammation and soothes sore muscles, this contains the anti-inflammatory painkiller ibuprofen, as well as menthol which can soothe sore skin or muscles, according to the maker. Apply as needed.
EXPERT VERDICT: Muscle rubs like this can certainly provide localised pain relief, and the ibuprofen in them acts as an anti-inflammatory.
But there are questions over how deep the gel can reach into the affected tissue.
Used for short-term pain relief on localised areas, I believe they are safer than taking drugs such as ibuprofen in tablet form (which can cause stomach aches, nausea and diarrhoea). 6/10
BRACE TO SUPPORT SPRAINED ANKLES
Neo G, £15.99, neo-g.co.uk
CLAIM: Made from stretchy polyester and cotton, this is said to reduce the pain from ankle sprains and stabilise injured, weak or arthritic ankle joints. It comprises a semi-rigid cast that holds the ankle in position, plus a removable gel bed that can be cooled in the fridge and inserted into the brace to reduce any swelling. This should be used regularly until the swelling goes down.
BRACE TO SUPPORT SPRAINED ANKLES: Neo G, £15.99, neo-g.co.uk
EXPERT VERDICT: Sprains occur when the ankle is suddenly forced to move out of its normal position, which can cause the supporting ligaments (which hold joints together) to stretch, or tear and this can strain surrounding muscles, too.
This is a good quality brace that supports the inside and outside of the ankle. Most ankle sprains are recurrent and as the ligaments become over-stretched they fail to provide stability.
This ankle brace provides that stability but is bulky and not easy to wear with shoes.
It is good for short-term support but should not be used as a substitute for balance exercises — such as standing on the injured foot for up to 60 seconds — unless the ankle is severely unstable. 7/10
P.S. WHAT ABOUT TIGER BALM?
Launched in China back in 1924, tiger balm has been used by generations to ease sore muscles and joints.
Numerous studies have found it soothes pain — although most have been small. This makes it difficult to determine if the benefits are due to active ingredients such as menthol (which may reduce inflammation by making blood vessels constrict) and camphor (that numbs, possibly by blocking nerve endings), or the placebo effect from rubbing the skin.
Physiotherapist Tim Allardyce says: ‘Tiger balm claims to have mild anti-inflammatory properties, which help reduce inflammation in the muscles as well as having a mild anaesthetic effect on the skin.
‘For many people with minor injuries, tiger balm does seem to lead to mild improvements — so I would give it a try.’
Launched in China back in 1924, tiger balm has been used by generations to ease sore muscles and joints
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