Some time ago, I spent hours hammering hundreds of long nails through a plank of plywood. It wasn’t easy. The nails had to be carefully spaced, about a centimetre apart, protruding exactly the same distance from the wood. Any deviation would have made it quite uncomfortable to lie on my new bed of nails.
The point, as it were, was to demonstrate to students that you did not have to be a Hindu mystic to lie on a bed of nails. There was absolutely nothing paranormal about accomplishing the feat. It was simply a question of physics. As long as the weight was distributed over enough nails, there was no worry about skin penetration.
While this was a neat demonstration, I can’t say it was particularly relaxing. That’s why I was taken a little aback when I came across what amounted to a bed of nails being sold in a health-food store with claims of promoting relaxation and stress reduction. Not only that, it promised to energize, improve sleep, reduce pain, increase circulation and, within five minutes, provide a fresh glow and facelift effect. Meet “Spoonk,” the “acupressure massage eco mat.”
Spoonk is a flexible plastic mat that, instead of nails, features 6,210 sharp plastic stimulation points. The odd name is a whimsical version of “spunk,” a word made up by Pippi Longstocking, the fictional heroine created by Swedish children’s writer Astrid Lindgren. While Pippi attached no meaning to the word, it became associated with strength, energy and a love of life, all characteristics Pippi possessed. The apparent message is that Spoonk can bestow these very same properties. The rationale is based on the concept that the body is permeated with channels called meridians, through which a sort of life energy, often referred to as “chi” flows. Any blockage of the flow of chi means bad news.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, these blockages can be cleared either by the appropriate application of needles, as in acupuncture, or with physical pressure. Such “acupressure” is said to be the principle behind Spoonk. The little spikes are designed to produce some sort of a shotgun effect, clearing all the possible meridian blockages. Anatomical science, however, cannot detect any sort of meridian and no measurable “chi” force exists. Of course that does not mean that acupressure cannot work by some other means.
My first encounter with “acupressure” was back in the 1960s in an introductory psychology course at McGill University, although the term was never mentioned and there was no talk of any “chi.” I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by professor Ronald Melzack, one of the world’s premier experts on pain and developer of the McGill Pain Questionnaire, used by cancer clinics around the globe.
Frankly, I don’t think I really understood his “gate theory,” and I still don’t, but I know it has something to do with the spinal cord either blocking pain signals or allowing them to pass to the brain, depending on whether the signal travels via small nerves or through larger nerve fibres. Somehow by applying appropriate pressure in certain spots, the “gate” that allows a pain message to pass to the brain can be blocked.
It all sounds very theoretical, but Dr. Melzack’s practical example made an impact. If you have a toothache, he advised, just rub your hand between the thumb and forefinger with an ice cube. That sounded pretty odd, but Professor Melzack wasn’t talking out of his hat. He actually quoted a clinical trial that had demonstrated success.
Of course, rubbing a hand with an ice cube for relief of a toothache is a far cry from relaxing or energizing the body by lying on a plastic bed of spikes. Actually, it isn’t clear to me how you can be both energized and relaxed at the same time, but never mind that. The pertinent question is whether there is any evidence that the mat provides benefit.
I can’t find any trials that have put Spoonk to a test, but I did turn up some sketchy data about a handmade mat with some 1,500 stainless steel office pins, invented by a Russian layman, Ivan Kuznetsov, back in the 1980s. He figured that by poking the body everywhere, he would be hitting some of the right acupuncture points, and no harm would be done by any that were off target. The mat was eventually sold in pharmacies and spurred a television documentary that detailed successes in alleviating pain. No studies, however, were published in the scientific literature.
An American version of Kuznetsov’s mat was marketed for a while under the name of Panacea. In one study, albeit not methodologically impressive, of 200 users, 98 per cent reported pain relief, 96 per cent reported relaxation, 94 per cent reported improvement in the quality of sleep, and 81 per cent reported an increase in energy level.
Approximately half of the subjects with allergy problems reported relief of their symptoms. The fly in the ointment here is that subjects commonly report such benefits no matter what kind of treatment they are offered. Similar benefits are claimed by people who rub their body with snail slime, drink oxygenated water, sport plastic bracelets with “therapeutic” holograms or bask in the reflected light of the Arizona moon.
While there are no compelling studies about acupressure mats, there have been a surprising number of studies on various other forms of acupressure. In fact, some 43 studies have investigated stimulating various body parts in order to manage pain, breathing problems, fatigue, insomnia and pregnancy or chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. While some studies have shown benefit, a systematic review published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management concluded that “the existing clinical trials do not provide rigorous support for the efficacy of acupressure for symptom management.”
Spoonk asks us to “imagine a world free from stress, anxiety, depression, stiffness and pain.” The company’s stated mission is “to contribute to that imaginary world with a simple and effective product.” I can go with the “imaginary,” but the use of the term “effective” would have left me somewhat skeptical had I not noted the logo of the Dr. Oz Show on Spoonk’s package.
Surely Dr. Oz would not lead us astray.
What a stressful thought.
So I dug out my old bed of nails.
After all, according to Spoonk, stimulating all those acupressure points is a great stress buster. It didn’t work. I tore my pants.