Whole-Body Vibration (WBV): Effectiveness, Safety, & Side Effects

Are you a woman looking to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis? Or are you a fitness buff who wants to build bone density faster than can be done with exercise alone?

If you are either, here’s the most recent piece of advice from experts: junk the vibrating devices and stick to good old-fashioned exercise.

New findings show that the whole-body vibration (WBV) platforms used by fitness buffs and older women to build bone density or prevent bone loss from osteoporosis may be just expensive junk—and may even pose health and safety hazards for elderly people with fragile bones.

After menopause, women frequently experience progressive bone loss or develop osteoporosis, both of which cause their bones to become brittle and porous and place them at increased risk for bone fractures. Men also suffer from progressive bone loss, but at lower rates.

In the United States, osteoporosis affects two percent of men and 10 percent of women over the age of 50. Forty-nine percent of older women and 30 percent of older men in the US have osteopenia or low bone density.

Weight-bearing exercise—or any exercise, including walking, dancing or exercising with small weights, where the feet and legs support the body’s weight—increases bone mass the same way that exercise increases muscle mass.

When stress is placed on the bones, the bones respond by becoming thicker and stronger, and around 10 years ago, WBV platforms were first developed to build bone density by mimicking this action of exercise. The platforms produce tiny up and down vibrations, making muscles contract and putting tiny stresses on the body.

Over the next few years, a number of animal and human studies showed the compact platforms could increase bone mass. Since then, WBV platform therapy has been increasingly touted as an alternative or supplement to drugs or hormone treatment used to prevent bone loss in older women.

A slew of vibrating machines have also popped up in fitness clubs, and the Globe and Mail reports that NASA has even considered using this technique to maintain the bone-health of U.S. astronauts during long-duration space flights. Many companies now market WBV devices at around US$200 to US$3,000.

But consumers should note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved these devices for medical purposes.

What’s more, it’s still unclear if the vibration devices actually work to increase bone mass—and a new study showed they don’t.

No difference in bone loss

The Canadian clinical trial, published in the November 15, 2011 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that the platforms didn’t work: Older women who stood on a WBV for 20 minutes a day suffered just as much bone loss over the course of the year-long trial as women who didn’t use the platform.

“To our disappointment, we did not find an effect from vibration therapy in these post-menopausal women,” says Dr. Angela Cheung, the study’s senior researcher.

“Although researchers are seeking alternatives to time-consuming exercise to improve bone density, the results of this study suggest this specific therapy is not effective in improving bone density,” says Dr. Cheung, who is also director of the osteoporosis program at the University Health Network in Toronto.

The UHN is Canada’s largest hospital-based research program with major research in complex care, cardiology, transplantation, neurosciences, oncology, surgical innovation, infectious diseases, genomic medicine and rehabilitation medicine.

There are different types of vibration platforms. Some produce low magnitude vibrations while others produce high magnitude ones. Some WBV are designed to exercise on, while others are meant to be used by simply standing on them.

The platforms in the Canadian study were low-magnitude devices, about twice the size of a bathroom scale, and designed for women to stand on.