Before it was a world-famous tourist destination, Grand Canyon was home to a number of small copper mines. These days, inner-canyon copper is also found in the compression sleeves that wrap the aching joints of visiting hikers. But in spite of their popularity, copper-infused products aren’t something I would ever use. My rationale for this is simple: I’ve seen no evidence that copper helps with joint pain or injury prevention.
I’m not alone in this skepticism. According to Consumer Reports, “There’s little to no reliable scientific evidence that the copper/compression combo does what manufacturers are claiming.”
A seven-figure settlement, but no admission of guilt
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also skeptical. In 2015, the the FTC announced a $1.35 million settlement with Tommie Copper, a seller of copper-infused compression wear after alleging that the company had promoted its products using false and unsubstantiated claims. Among the statements that the FTC took issue with was an assertion that “by placing the copper at the source of discomfort, it provides immediate relief from inflammation, starts to stimulate blood flow and harnesses the other well-known health benefits of copper.”
The company admitted to no wrongdoing, but they are now barred from making unsubstantiated claims of health benefits.
But the FTC has limited reach and resources, and other companies continue to make extravagant claims. Less than a year after the FTC announced its 2015 settlement, another company issued a press release containing the astounding claim that copper will “generate a magnetic field that encourages the body to cure, regenerate tissues, and overall heal various illnesses.”
Actual advantages of copper-infused athletic wear
Copper-infused products are not entirely worthless — although copper does not emit a magical magnetic healing field, it’s not like a knee brace stops bracing your knee the moment copper is added. And it does have certain verified properties, such as a tendency to inhibit bacterial growth. That said, I have never heard any one hiker compliment the pleasant scent of another’s copper-infused knee brace.
Another possible benefit is the placebo effect. Dr. Shane K. Woolf, chief of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, writes (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that purchasers of copper-infused products “will likely have at least some benefit, even if you forget to wear it.”
Listen to your knees (and to medical professionals)
My belief is this: If you are coming to Grand Canyon and you have joint pain or a history of joint injuries, talk to your doctor about what type of sleeve or brace might work well for you. A compression sleeve that feels awesome during your day-to-day routine (copper-infused or not) may not work for you on a rim-to-rim hike. Ask your doctor for guidance on what causes your pain, learn what aggravates and alleviates it, and ask him or her for a product recommendation. Figure out what works best, and try it out on suitable training hikes before visiting Grand Canyon. Do your homework — your knees will thank you.