Can Blood Flow Stimulation Therapy Heal Your Running Injuries?
In the search for better and faster ways to heal running injuries, there’s always a new treatment or product on the market.
One of the new trends in injury treatment is something called blood flow stimulation therapy, or BFST.
It’s not so much a treatment as it is a product—King Brand, a sports injury supply company best-known for its cold wraps and compression sleeves for various joints and body parts, advertises a special kind of heating pad that promises rapid and effective healing for tendon and muscle injuries.
The company calls the technology the heating pad employs “blood flow stimulation therapy.”
So, what exactly does it do? And is it going to be any more effective at treating running injuries than a standard heating pad?
We’ll have to work out what a King Brand blood flow stimulation therapy wrap actually does to answer those questions.
The role of heat in treating running injuries
Direct delivery of heat is known to help improve blood flow.
This was demonstrated in a 2005 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. In the study, researchers examined how localized blood flow changed in response to a 20 minute immersion in hot water, cold water, or contrast therapy (alternating between hot and cold).
The results showed that hot water immersion, as well as contrast therapy, resulted in a statistically significant increase in blood flow to the lower leg, though of course these subjects were healthy, not injured.
There is relatively little scientific literature on using heat to treat running injuries.
One thing we do know is that heating is not advisable in the immediate aftermath for an acute injury, like an ankle sprain.
In 1982, researchers in Delaware demonstrated that applying heat therapy to an ankle sprain more than doubles the time to recovery from a grade four ankle sprain when compared to frequent icing.
We can probably infer from this study that applying heat to any running injury that is acutely inflamed and swollen is not a good idea.
However, it’s well-known that most running injuries are not inflammatory in nature, at least after the first few days or weeks.
So, in these cases, it’s plausible that heating can help by increasing blood flow.
Indeed, some commonly injured areas, like the plantar fascia and the posterior tibial tendon are hypothesized to be susceptible to injury precisely because they have poor blood supply.
Anecdotally, many runners find that heating up an injured tendon or muscle before running seems to help reduce pain.
Is blood flow stimulation therapy better than regular heating?
Blood flow stimulation therapy claims to use an “energy web” to deliver heat deep to body tissues, unlike a standard heating pad, and claims to do so differently than ultrasound or infrared heating.
So what’s going on?
Company literature claims that the wraps use “diathermic” heating technologies, which generate heat one of three ways: ultrasound waves, short-wave radiofrequency waves, or microwaves.
We know it’s not an ultrasound—the company claims their technology is different than ultrasound devices—so this leaves radio frequency waves and microwaves. Marketing emails from the company state that the device uses energy somewhere between the microwave and radio wave frequencies.
In short, it’s a slightly safer, wrappable microwave oven for your foot, leg, or back.
However, A quick search of the Food and Drug Administration’s medical device database reveals that King Brands registered this as a “powered heating pad,” the same designation used by plain old electric heating pads. Additionally, data from the FDA show that the device was not independently reviewed, because the company claimed that it was “substantially similar” to other devices in the same category.
So, on one hand, the company is telling the FDA that their product is pretty much the same as an electric heating pad. On the other, their marketing literature is claiming that it works through a different and superior method.
The company’s website raises a lot of red flags, too.
For example, they describe their technology as using “electro-magnetic energy” but later refer to it as “EMR”—a more standard physics term for electromagnetic radiation.
Their claims about stimulating injury healing are not cited, and clearly weren’t written by someone with expertise in athletic injuries.
By this point, you might be wondering whether there’s any actual science behind blood flow stimulation therapy.
In short, no: there has been no independent testing of the King Brand BFST wraps, so there’s no good resource to go to in order to find out if their product is delivering any substantially different result than a simple heat pad.
Heat might work for running injuries, but there’s no evidence Blood Flow Stimulation Therapy is any better
There’s a clear lack of research on the effects of heating for running injuries.
Despite that, a lot of physical therapists and athletic trainers find, through their clinical experience, that heating can help when applied before activity to chronic overuse injuries that are not acutely inflamed or swollen.
Heat pads and hot water baths are the most common ways of applying heat, and they are pretty safe, inexpensive, and easy to use.
King Brand’s blood flow stimulation therapy wraps don’t have enough evidence to recommend.
There is some shady, duplicitous behavior going on with regards to their marketing claims. On one hand, they assured the FDA that their device was substantially similar to a plain old heating pad. On the other, their website claims it’s vastly different and superior.
This, combined with the unscientific and unsupported claims of efficacy on their website, provide a good case for steering clear of blood flow stimulation therapy.
For now, stick to the plain old bucket full of water from the bathtub.