Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: Do copper-infused sports braces really work?

Shane K. Woolf, MD, Chief, Sports Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina
Shane K. Woolf, MD, Chief, Sports Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina Submitted

This week, Dr. Shane K. Woolf, chief of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, discusses sports braces, cuffs and other products that contain copper.

Question: Does copper really relieve the pain of arthritis and aching muscles?

Answer: In recent years copper has found a place beyond pennies and plumbing.

We regularly see advertisements on television and in print media, often with celebrity endorsements, demonstrating effective pain relief for arthritis and muscle aches supposedly from copper-containing bracelets and pads.

As the general population seeks to continue remaining active, even into our older years, many look to novel ideas for reducing the pain that accompanies physical activity, especially when arthritis is present.

Many people wear copper bracelets, knee pads and elbow pads in search of relief of the discomfort experienced during activity and even pain at rest. While the health benefits of copper containing devices are marketed directly to consumers, many of these claims are not substantiated. Yet sales continue to grow and the lore of copper broadens.

While the health benefits of copper containing devices are marketed directly to consumers, many of these claims are not substantiated.

Dr. Shane K. Woolf, chief of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina,

While the medical literature does not demonstrate a great volume of research on this topic, there are several published studies that have looked specifically at the pain relieving potential of copper.

One such study, published by Stewart J. Richmond and colleagues in 2009, found no therapeutic benefit from copper bracelets in terms of pain or stiffness in patients with osteoarthritis. This study was randomized, placebo controlled, blinded and patients crossed over between groups, including controls and magnetized bracelets. Thus, the study was of high quality and the outcomes can be considered reliable. The authors speculated that any pain relief achieved in the group who wore copper bracelets may be attributed to placebo effect.

Richmond was lead author on another study in 2013 that demonstrated similar findings in the rheumatoid arthritis population. Another high quality study by N.A. Shackel and colleagues from 1998 looked at copper-salicylate gel as a pain reliever in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. This controlled study actually demonstrated a higher risk for adverse reaction such as skin irritation in the copper group and no therapeutic benefit.

The medical literature is absent any studies that have looked specifically at copper impregnated materials and pain relief for either arthritis or activity related soreness. Nor is there evidence that performance is enhanced by these devices. What is interesting, however, is that copper has been shown to demonstrate both antibacterial and antiviral properties.

There is substantial evidence that copper coated surfaces, including parts of hospital rooms, patient gowns, sinks, and other areas have a lower concentration of bacteria and viral particles. So it is not likely that copper devices will increase risk for skin infection when worn frequently.

Further, there is really no evidence for harmful effects from wearing copper bracelets or knee/elbow pads. Certainly, there is a risk to benefit assessment that must be considered about anything one uses to treat muscle and joint pain. Even over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and topical pain creams are not without risk. Yet, there is something to be said for the effect of placebo and positive thinking about pain relief. This is where the lore and anecdote of copper devices resides.

Most of the sports medicine and orthopaedic research is clear that moderate activity and maintaining strength, motion, and flexibility are beneficial to reduce and prevent painful arthritis and muscles.

Spend a few bucks on a copper pad or bracelet while staying active, and you will likely have at least some benefit, even if you forget to wear it.

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