Localized Vibration Therapy for Athletes

By Tricia Davis | July 05, 2016, 1:48 p.m. (ET)

What’s all the buzz about a 5” vibrating ball? Being a physical therapist and endurance athlete for the past 20 years I am always searching for ways to help myself and my patients recover from hard training sessions and injuries quickly.

When I came across the Hypersphere from a company called HyperIce, I was intrigued.

Many athletes, including the ones that I coach, take advantage of various self-massage techniques to decrease muscle soreness, increase flexibility and aid recovery between training sessions to prevent injuries. Various devices are used based on personal preference. These include softballs, lacrosse balls, foam rollers, taped together tennis balls, even rolling pin-looking devices.

vibrating massage ball

What are these devices doing?

Research is not clear on how, but using foam rollers and other self-massage devices makes you feel better. Rolling over sore, knotted muscles makes them less sore and knotted. Are we realigning muscle fibers — loosening the deep connective tissue that holds everything together in their juicy, encapsulated packets? No one knows for sure. What I do know is that “it’s complicated.” Just like everything else that happens inside the body, there are chemical, neural, muscular and vascular components involved and it’s very difficult to tweeze them apart.

There is not much research on vibration therapy with regard to athletics. Most of the research has been done to study injury or disease related to prolonged and repeated occupational exposure, as seen in operating jackhammers. There are some benefits to vibration therapy on the human body, which may increase bone density, blood circulation, muscle strength, performance, endurance, proprioception and balance ability. Metabolic and hormonal responses have also been observed to aid in decreasing muscle inflammation and muscle soreness. Much more research will need to be done to determine training protocols based on frequency, amplitude and duration among other variables.

All of this aside, I have been using the vibrating ball (Hypersphere) now for about a month, pretty consistently. I have found it to be very useful on decreasing stiffness in my lower back, not by directly using it on my back muscles, but by rolling out a chronic left-sided hamstring tear that has developed some scar tissue close to my ischial tuberosity. After I get done with a run, the hamstring usually tightens right up. After I sit down for a few minutes, my low back and hip flexors feel as if they are in a vice. Since I’ve been using the vibrating ball, the hamstring is much less of an issue. It is particularly helpful sitting with the ball under my thigh to put direct pressure on the hamstring and actively straightening my knee as I kick my foot toward the ceiling. The hamstring muscle gets a stretch and is “reciprocally inhibited” by actively contracting my quadricep to straighten the knee. This allows the pressure and vibration of the ball to be less painful and work deeper into the painful area. It doesn’t take a research paper to realize that the blood flow to the area is increased, as when I’m done the skin is bright red. This has got to be beneficial in allowing the muscle to get the healing nutrients it needs to repair itself and flush out the waste products from the area as well. Also, it seems that the vibration in the ball makes rolling much more tolerable over painful areas. With the ball turned off, rolling over my lateral thighs is excruciating. Turned to my preferred medium setting (there are three settings available), the pain is much more tolerable. Perhaps this can be explained by the gate control theory of pain that states a non-painful stimulus (vibration) input closes the “gates” to painful input, which prevents pain sensation from traveling to the central nervous system. Therefore, stimulation by non-noxious input is able to suppress pain.

Two studies stood out when I searched the literature. The first study was one on whole body vibration (by using a vibrating platform) and it’s ability to decrease pain intensity in chronic osteoarthritic patients. It also aided in increasing the strength of the quadricep muscle and increasing dynamic balance. (1) Ann Rehabil Med. 2013 Aug;37(4):505-515.

The second study looked at localized vibration on the quadricep muscles in the front of the thighs in skiers. A vibrator used on these muscles at 50 Hz 1 min each leg. “A comparison indicates that vibration therapy (VT) before eccentric exercise may prevent and control DOMS.” (2) Br J Sports Med 2007 Mar 41(3):145-148.

More science is emerging about how powerful the mind is in allowing athletes to achieve their ultimate performance. With regard to the mind, if you perceive that it feels better, then you feel better and will allow for improved performances in training sessions. These training sessions will change your perceptions that increased speed feels easier and you continue to push your own limits upward. Thus you get faster and stronger and better able to endure the discomfort of higher-level competition. You become more confident that you are faster and you will push harder, knowing that you can compete at the top level of your sport. It is all in the mind.

Thus, I prefer not to wait to see if the research shows that they work or explain why they do. I will continue to use mine and feel better in the meantime. You should try localized vibration therapy for yourself and see if it makes you feel better, or at least think you do!

The Hypersphere by HyperIce that I have been using is best described here. There are many soft foam rollers emerging currently that vibrate, but may be cost prohibitive. The technology will no doubt improve and make all of these devices easier to purchase if you are on a tight budget.

Tricia Davis, PT, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, wellness and injury prevention specialist and co-owner of Potential Energy Training. She is a hyperkinetic, Canadian-trained physiotherapist and athlete. Good at seeing the big picture, she is able to focus on the most important details for you to achieve success. Tricia thrives most in helping those with limited time by providing evidence-based training and skill acquisition in order to make training the most efficient way to attain goals while reducing risk of injury. Tricia is passionate about health, wellness and efficiency in sport while maintaining a balance in all aspects of life. Connect with her at tricia@potentialenergytraining.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.