You may have seen vibration plate machines, like the Power Plate or the Zaaz machine, in your local gym or fitness store. While this type of machine has been proven to have a few health benefits, science is still unraveling which — if any — risks they also present.
Potential Vibration Plate Benefits
As explained by the Mayo Clinic, advocates for vibration plate machines provide a long list of potential benefits, including enhanced blood flow, reduced muscle soreness, fat-burning, improved flexibility and decreases in the stress hormone cortisol. But sales promises are just that — a way of selling you something — and comprehensive research is still needed to show exactly what vibration plates can do for you, and which risks they may have.
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That's your first potential hazard of buying or using a vibration plate, or really any "too good to be true" fitness gadget: They might not deliver on everything promised, and they certainly can't entirely take the place of the regular exercise recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services to keep you physically healthy.
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Pregnant or Health Problems?
Most vibration plates come with a specific warning not to use them if you're pregnant. When in doubt, always talk to your doctor before beginning any new fitness program — even one as seemingly benign as standing on a platform that vibrates. Because other types of vibration have been associated with adverse reactions and even chronic health conditions, you can't automatically assume that a vibration plate machine is as benign as it seems.
You should also talk to your doctor before trying vibration therapy if you're in treatment, or under supervision, for any health conditions. Until science more clearly establishes exactly what risks come with using a vibration plate machine, a good medical team can help you determine whether the particulars of your condition make it safe or unsafe to give this new gadget a try.
It's worth noting, and discussing with your doctor, that whole-body vibration has been in trial as an alternative therapy for use during certain medical treatments or conditions. For example, a study published in a 2018 issue of BMC Cancer found that vibration plates may be useful during intensive chemotherapy for patients with hematological malignancies. This small study of 20 subjects found that the vibration therapy provided significant improvements in balance and ability to "get up and go."
Vibration plates have also been tested for their helpful effects on conditions as widely ranging as menopause, cerebral palsy and Crohn's disease.
Vibration Plates Vary — a Lot
Even as the body of evidence about what vibration plate machines can and can't do increases, you shouldn't assume that every study applies to the machine in front of you.
That's because in a study published in the November 2013 issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers evaluated six healthy adults as they used a range of whole-body vibration devices — vibration plates. They found that the levels of vibration these plate systems delivered ranged from amounts considered safe for daily exposure of up to eight hours, all the way up to seven times higher than the safe threshold for even one minute of daily exposure.
How much of that vibration was transmitted to the test subjects' heads — which can determine the safety of a vibration plate machine — also varied a lot depending on how much the subjects flexed their knees. The study concluded by warning that vibration can adversely affect a number of physiologic systems and, because some readily accessible devices markedly exceed ISO guidelines, "extreme caution must be practiced when considering their use."
The vibration plates evaluated in that study included several models of Vibrafit, a Marodyne device and the Power Plate, with the latter providing the highest acceleration by far. That great variation means that you can't assume that a clinical study based on vibration plate machines in general applies to the gadget you're using — unless you can confirm that the plate in front of you and the ones in the study all deliver the same type and degree of vibration.
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Some More Vibration Risks
Here's another reason to be concerned about, and aware of, the great variability in power between different vibration plates. As a review of data, published in a March 2013 issue of Current Osteoporosis Reports, points out, at high intensities vibration can actually cause bone fractures. That's a particular problem because osteoporosis is one of the conditions for which vibration plates are being considered as a possible treatment.
The authors go on to note that continuing exposure to vibration has also been shown to cause low back pain in truck drivers; circulatory disorders in construction-site workers operating machinery; and other conditions such as blurred vision, tinnitus, headaches and joint pain.
They also identify a number of potential contraindications for using whole-body vibration. These include pregnancy, retinal detachment, fresh surgical wounds, joint implants, cochlear implants or having a pacemaker. If you have these conditions, the authors advise, you should avoid vibration therapy entirely.
They May Not Deliver
As the clinical backing for benefits from fitness vibration plates increases, which benefits they really do or don't offer will become more clear. But for now, even those benefits that are considered clinically proven are still subject to some controversy.
For example, a systematic review published in an August 2018 issue of the Baltimore journal Medicine evaluated a total of 10 clinical studies involving 14 groups of people who underwent whole body vibration treatments. The authors state that the whole body vibration therapy significantly improved bone mineral density in the subjects (a total of 462 people who went through menopause).
Meanwhile, a study published in a May 2019 issue of JBMR Plus seems to contradict that. After following a pool of more than 200 people who went through menopause during a year of whole body vibration therapy, the researchers were not able to find any clinically significant differences in bone mineral density. However, they note that due to funding restraints they weren't able to mock up sham platforms to make this an entirely blind study, and that the method used to gauge bone density may have had an effect on the outcome.
Ultimately, more research is needed, and it's possible that the wide variation in vibration platforms is responsible for at least some of the variability in clinical results.
- Mayo Clinic: "Is Whole-Body Vibration a Good Way to Lose Weight and Improve Fitness?"
- Medicine: "Whole-Body Vibration Training and Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women"
- JBMR Plus: "Effects of Whole‐Body Vibration Therapy on Distal Tibial Myotendinous Density and Volume: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Postmenopausal Women"
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "Safety and Severity of Accelerations Delivered From Whole Body Vibration Exercise Devices to Standing Adults"
- BMC Cancer: "Feasibility of Whole Body Vibration During Intensive Chemotherapy in Patients With Hematological Malignancies"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Current Osteoporosis Reports: "The Potential Benefits and Inherent Risks of Vibration as a Non-Drug Therapy for the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis"