Bone Health: Vibration Therapy for Older Adults
A Summary of Benefits and Recent Research
Numerous medical and fitness devices were invented in the 19th and early 20th centuries—some were considered quackery, while others evolved into valid therapies. During this era, many devices were introduced that promised easy ways to lose weight and/or become fit. Vintage “reducing machines” or “vibrating exercise belts” promised to tone muscles and shake off fat through the use of a large vibrating band around the abdomen that delivered vigorous vibrations to the body.
Fast-forward to the 1990s: Vibration evolved into whole-body vibration (WBV) platforms in athletic training and health club settings, followed by the availability of much less expensive devices for consumers in the 21st century. While its contribution to athletic fitness relative to other training methods is still under debate, WBV for therapeutic use is supported by decades of published evidence. However, its history of healing potential stretches back much farther.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used vibrations from modified tools and musical instruments as well as horse-drawn vehicles to heal wounds and other injuries. The therapeutic use of vibrations also was described in medical texts from various eras, including 16th-century Japan, 18th- and 19th-century France, 19th-century Scotland, and 19th- and early 20th-century America. Medical conditions for which therapeutic vibration has been used include bone fractures, rheumatic disorders, nervous system problems, muscle spasms, physical disabilities, cardiovascular problems, and digestive issues.1
WBV remained on the fringes of medical practice until the 1950s and 1960s, when Russian scientists embraced vibration—calling it “rhythmic neuromuscular stimulation”—for muscle and bone strength training and recovery applications in astronauts and Olympic athletes. In the mid-1990s, when a Russian astronaut spent more than 400 days in space without the typical large loss of bone density from zero gravity after using WBV, interest from the medical and fitness communities exploded. In the late 1990s, a Dutch Olympic coach developed the most popular commercial and therapeutic WBV device—the Power Plate.1 Since then, smaller, less expensive devices for home use have become available for consumers. These devices also are used by personal trainers, physical therapists, and rehabilitation professionals due to their much lower cost compared with the Power Plate.
How Does WBV Work?
WBV technology has evolved such that different types of vibration can be included in one device. Oscillating/pivotal, spiral/triplanar, and linear motions are available depending on the model. The different types of vibration are advertised for various uses, such as massage/lymphatic drainage, bone density increase, circulation improvement, muscle strength and balance, and more.
For WBV training, the user stands on the platform, which is set at a certain frequency for a few to several minutes. Alternatively, exercises such as squats, lunges, and weighted strength moves can be done while standing on the platform or stepping onto the platform. For upper body strengthening, push-ups or planks can be performed with the hands on the platform as it vibrates.
Due to the intensity of vibration delivered to the body during WBV, sessions are short, ranging from a few minutes to 15 minutes depending on the user and the desired results. For example, an older, deconditioned woman with low bone density would require a shorter session at lower frequency and amplitude than that which a competitive athlete would use for muscular strength training with WBV.
Potential Benefits for Older Adults
Due to its long history of use, there is a large body of research on WBV for its many therapeutic uses. Enough evidence exists for researchers to perform advanced meta-analyses to determine its benefits. And the strongest evidence is actually for therapeutic uses, not for fitness and athletic training as is the focus of many commercial advertisements.
Early studies on bone mineral density (BMD) and muscle atrophy in astronauts fueled research on the benefits in older adults with osteoporosis, arthritis, and frailty. Recent studies on WBV on bone health and falls include the following:
• A July 2021 comparative study in elderly women found that WBV training improved BMD of the proximal femur.4
• A July 2021 randomized controlled trial (RCT) comparing WBV training with quadriceps strength training in 81 older adults with knee arthritis found no significant differences in pain and functional tests. However, WBV significantly improved isokinetic muscle strength around the knee joint.5
• A June 2020 meta-analysis of 16 RCTs evaluating different types of exercise training on BMD in more than 1,600 older postmenopausal women found WBV significantly increased lumbar spine BMD compared with aerobic and resistance training.6
• A May 2020 RCT that included 43 postmenopausal women with osteoporosis found WBV training significantly increased leg muscle work as well as lumbar and femoral BMD.7
• Another May 2020 RCT that included 58 postmenopausal women found WBV training significantly increased BMD at the femoral neck and lumbar spine compared with high-impact exercise. WBV and high-impact exercise also both improved functional mobility and depression symptoms.8
• An April 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis of 10 RCTs concluded that WBV helped improve functional mobility (included gain and balance) in older adults in nursing homes.9
• A December 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis of 14 RCTs found that WBV significantly reduced the rate of falls in adults older than 50, although no effects on BMD were found.10
Recent studies of WBV to improve functioning in frail older adults include the following:
• A February 2022 RCT that included 117 frail older adults living in a residential care facility found that low-level WBV training improved functional independence, confidence related to fall prevention, and quality of life. A July 2020 trial in the same population showed that WBV improved walking performance and other functionality tests and was easily used and accepted by frail older adults with no adverse effects.11,12
• A February 2020 study found that twice-weekly WBV for 12 weeks in frail nursing home residents improved knee extension strength and other physical performance measures with no adverse effects.13
Interestingly, in addition to improving bone and muscle strength, WBV may also aid in managing type 2 diabetes, COPD, and Parkinson’s disease—three conditions common in older adults. An October 2019 meta-analysis of seven studies of 279 older adults with type 2 diabetes compared WBV training with other exercises. WBV was associated with improvements in pain, blood circulation to the legs, glycated hemoglobin levels, and fasting blood glucose levels. It also was found to improve mobility, aerobic capacity, and balance.14 An October 2018 meta-analysis of eight RCTs including 365 patients with COPD found that WBV increased walking distance and functional exercise capacity.15 A May 2021 RCT in 48 patients with severe COPD found that WBV significantly improved balance and muscular power compared with conventional balance training.16 An April 2021 meta-analysis of WBV in patients with Parkinson’s disease found that it was significantly better than standard methods for improving gait.17
Research into these and other applications of WBV training for older adults is ongoing and is expected to reveal or confirm additional therapeutic benefits for older adults. This research indicates that WBV is an exercise and therapeutic modality worth considering for geriatric care.
— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care researcher in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.
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