The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and Basketball's Placebo Effect

Wearing a sleeve might really be superstition.


What’s with the sleeves?

Back in 2000, after having surgery on his elbow, Allen Iverson started wearing what is now known as a “basketball sleeve.”

Running from wrist to bicep, the sleeve is really nothing more than an oversized compression bandage. But long after his joint healed, Iverson kept on wearing his “sleeve.”

Rumors started flying: maybe it helps with his shooting (he does have over 20,000 points for his career), maybe because he’s too superstitious to take it off or maybe—as a quick tour around the rumor mill known as the World Wide Web points out—because he used to be a Crip and the powers that be at the NBA have decreed ‘no gang tattoos allowed.’

Then, a few years ago, Denver Nugget Carmelo Anthony picked up on the same fashion statement. Again he donned the sleeve post-surgery. Again, he chose not to take it off long after his appendage had healed.

Well, this year Kobe Bryant got into the mix with a sleeve all his own. Again, with his MVP-esque seasons, the rumors started flying as to why.

I mention all of this because of a similar ‘sleeve’ incident all my own. When I was fifteen years old, I split my patella in a skiing accident. There’s nothing to do for a split patella other than wait. And don a knee sleeve.

I wore mine clear into my thirties. Whenever I went skiing, the sleeve went with me. Nevermind that the patella was all healed up by the time I got out of college, I found that on the days I went naked, the knee consistently throbbed.

Adding all these things together and I started to wonder: could these sleeves be functioning in the same way as placebos in medicine?

The “placebo effect” was popularized in 1955, when H.K. Beecher evaluated 15 clinical trials concerned with 15 different diseases and found that in all of them, 35 percent of 1,082 patients were made symptom free by placebos alone.

Since than, studies have found the effect even greater. For certain conditions like chronic pain, gastric ulcers and heart ailments, placebos bring relief to nearly 60 percent of all patients. In fact, when it comes to depression, these "fakes" have a better batting average than most major SSRIs.

But these basketball sleeves are not being used to cure a disease. Rather, they may be being used to prevent another injury. Could it be that placebos work for prevention as well?

I didn’t know, so I got in touch with Dr. Howard Brody, author of ‘The Placebo Response,’ to find out.

Brody pointed out that there are a number of scientific studies that show remedies like Vitamin C and Echinacea do not prevent colds when subjected to randomized, controlled, double-blind trials. Still, many people take these and swear by them.

“We know that among the variables in human function that appears readily able to respond to the placebo effect is IgA—the immunoglobulin that is present in mouth and nose mucus that provides the first line of defense against germs like cold viruses.,” says Brody. “So we might postulate (but cannot prove) that these "placebos" stimulate IgA production, and thereby actually do help reduce the number of colds people suffer, without any "direct" chemical effect taking place-- i.e. the placebo effect at work. So in this instance we have a clear mechanism by which placebos could work for prevention.”

That said, Brody also feels that something like a sleeve might really be superstition much more than scientific. “If we get too overly romanticized about the response,” he continues, “then the whole universe becomes a placebo.”

Though, when I ran down my experience with the ‘knee sleeve,’ he had agreed that in my case, the effect definitely fell into the placebo category.

I guess, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, in some cases “an ounce of placebo is worth a pound of cure.”

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Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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