Older Patients, Wiser Care

Is a Bracelet to Restore Balance and Energy Too Good to Be True?

Last updated:

December 06, 2010

Dear Dr. K: What are your thoughts on the new bracelet called I-Renew, which works on the biorhythms of the body? It's supposed to help with energy and balance. My father has dementia, so I bought him that bracelet -- and can verify that it works very well for him He no longer stumbles or wobbles as he walks, and he no longer needs to use a step-stool to climb in my pick-up truck. But others say this can't be true.

I'm happy to hear that your father's balance seems to be better these days. But is it the bracelet? Seems doubtful to me. I'd never heard of this device before your question, but a quick Internet search reveals many complaints about this product posing as a miracle cure.

How is a concerned caregiver to know if something's a scam or an unconventional treatment developed outside the usual medical model?

Gadgets, jewelry, magnets, herbal supplements, exotic extracts "“ patients and caregivers often ask about alternative treatment products in my practice, as they search for ways to address the many challenges of aging. It's often hard to know how beneficial these alternative treatments are. This is because problems like poor balance are "multi-factorial," meaning there's usually no single underlying cause that can be fixed easily. Instead, to help older adults with balance, geriatricians usually end up trying to "optimize" what we can, through things like strength training and medication adjustment.

And usually any improvements are small, whether a caregiver follows the advice of a doctor or decides to try an alternative treatment. For this reason, I usually encourage caregivers to start by focusing on the downsides of any unproven treatment:

How much will it cost? How affordable is this treatment for the patient and/or caregiver? "¢ What are the possible side effects? This especially concerns me with supplements and herbal medicines: These products aren't regulated by the FDA, and they can potentially interact with prescription medicines in unpredictable ways. Supplements also come with no guarantee of purity or potency.

Another factor to consider is the "placebo response," which is the well-documented phenomenon in laboratory studies of people getting better when they think they're taking a working treatment. If an alternative treatment (or even a "miracle cure" scam) activates the placebo response, is that a bad thing? Obviously, scientists still have a lot to learn about how the mind can affect the body's well-being, and vice-versa.

Like many alternative treatments, the i-Renew bracelet doesn't seem to have any legitimate scientific data supporting its effectiveness. It seems quite unlikely to help your father "“ or to cause physical harm or side effects, either. So in this case, it comes down to money: Can you or your dad afford it? Do you want to spend the money even knowing there's no proven benefit? Will you have to keep buying new bracelets?

My prescription for caregivers regarding alternative-treatment products:

"¢ Know that in the elderly, problems such as energy, balance, falls, and mood "“ problems "miracle cure" products often target -- are often due to lots of factors at the same time. For this reason, there's seldom one single remedy that can fix the problem. Instead, reasonable solutions usually involves "optimizing" the many little things we can.

"¢ Remember that these types of problems seem to "wax and wane," with the older person having better days and worse days. This often happens even when caregiver and doctor can't identify any changes in treatment or environment. If you use an alternative product, it also will be difficult to tell whether any improvement isn't just due to the natural ups and downs of the person's condition.

"¢ Always keep your loved one's doctor informed as to what you're trying, or thinking of trying. It's usually easier for a doctor to help you identify possible harms from alternative treatment, rather than possible benefit. Be especially careful about supplements and herbals, which are poorly regulated in the U.S., and may interact with prescription medications.

"¢ Though I'm not knocking the placebo effect, because I've seen it in action, beware of an unnecessary negative effect on your wallet. Big red flags: No compelling medical evidence (research done at respected institutions), health treatments sold via informercial and website exclusively, when your doctor has never heard of a purported "breakthrough," and sales pitches that use words like "miracle." Note also that many of the supposed "reviews" of these products online have been cleverly planted by the manufacturer.