I’ve been on holiday in France this past week and didn’t have access to an internet connection but now I’m back. I was there with family and as usual my father provided a logical fallacy hunter’s paradise. Asides from that, as we were returning to the UK on the ferry from Calais, some of our number started to feel a little queasy. Motion sickness is an all too common affliction that is basically caused by conflicting sensory inputs. If you’re on a plane or large boat there’s a good chance you can’t easily see outside so your eyes are telling you you’re not moving but your sense of balance is telling you that you’re swaying or accelerating and so on. Your brain gets all confuzzled and you start to feel sick.
A quick search online reveals as many potential cures and remedies for motion sickness as there are grains of sand on the earth but the one provided in the ship’s shop, and chosen by my companion, was a Sea-Band acupressure wrist bracelet. She had bought this whilst I was up on deck and by the time I returned she was feeling much better therefore, as far as everyone was concerned, the bracelet had worked. The bracelet is essentially a sweatband with a bobble of plastic on the inside which apparently presses in exactly the right place to trigger a pressure point that relieves nausea.
I chose to remain silent on the topic. I couldn’t think of any good reason other than placebo as to why the bracelet would have worked. I guessed that the acupressure point involved was the same ones used in acupuncture which are all based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); in which case it’s all bull crap. I wasn’t sure though and I didn’t want to hold forth without knowing what I was talking about. Also, assuming that it was just a placebo, I didn’t want to remove it and make the poor girl feel sick again.
Now that I’m home I can give it a good going over. Looking through the Sea-bands website and everything else that a basic Google search throws up makes it all look quite reasonable and based in science. It is, indeed, all based on TCM. They don’t hide that, they play it up, even though TCM is a pre-scientific theory that has no basis in reality. They also try to fit it into modern medicine by invoking the ‘gate control theory’ of pain control. This is more accurately described as a hypothesis, it is the best idea we have so far as to some of the physical and psychological aspects of pain control but it is openly acknowledged as being incomplete, certainly, and flawed, possibly. What it doesn’t do is provide a particularly good explanation as to why these wristbands would stop someone feeling sick. If you take TCM at face value there are multiple pressure points in the wrist and it would take an expert to accurately place the wristband on the correct one. Heaven knows we wouldn’t want to accidentally make our Chi flow even worse. As for a science-based explanation, well, there isn’t one.
The Sea-bands website has a long list of studies that supposedly back up their claims. To the untrained eye these might look substantial, they have fancy names and seem to be referencing scientific journals so it’s got to be legit, right? If you work your way through the list you will find that many of them have been withdrawn, some are just letters as opposed to peer reviewed articles and some are published in ‘alternative medicine’ journals which aren’t fit to line litter trays. It’s worth noting that most are from the 80s and 90s with almost nothing from the last decade. Of those that pass that initial filter when you actually read them you quickly see that none of them have control groups which means that any effect seen cannot be distinguished from placebo. Basically, they’re junk.
For me, I would say that this product is claiming to be a medical device and should therefore be held to a very high standard of evidence. It would fail this test and then they wouldn’t be legal to be sold alongside health claims thereby protecting the consumer from pseudoscientific bull shit. Obviously this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, though. Does all this mean that I should have spoke up and told my young companion that they were being duped by a 4000 year old magic trick? That’s a discussion for another post.