Bands of Hope

Lewis Jones

Can a cotton wristband and a plastic button alleviate seasickness? The British Consumer’s Association thinks so, but scientific evidence indicates otherwise.

The sea has always brought out the best in me. Such as a good lunch. So all those ads for Sea Bands have been striking a responsive chord. You know the things. They keep coming up in those glossy colour brochures that fall out of your magazines and into your waste paper basket.

How the Royal Navy Fights Seasickness — you can’t speak plainer than that. If the navy doesn’t know about being seasick, who does? “The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tested the system in 1986, and declare it a useful, drowsiness and side-effect free alternative to drugs.”

At this point you look at the accompanying photograph and see what looks like a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin. You look closer and examine the picture in careful detail to see what a Sea Band really is. It turns out to be a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin.

Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I decided to follow the Sea Band trail and see where it lead. When I contacted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Principal Medical Officer, Dr Driver, I struck lucky right away. It was Dr Driver who tested the Sea Bands aboard Sir Lancelot in the South Atlantic. Of the 17 people tested, two-thirds said they thought the Sea Bands effective and one-third didn’t. This is a very small sample, so how about a control group? Well, another test had been planned on the good ship Tristram, without the plastic buttons, but there wasn’t enough bad weather. Dr Driver emphasised that such evidence as there was, was anecdotal.

Consumers’ Association Test

Then the British Consumers’ Association (CA) decided to hand out Sea Bands to 27 passengers on a cross-channel ferry. About two-thirds thought they felt less ill than usual, and one third didn’t. Still no control group. And again the sample was small. The CA admitted this was not a controlled clinical trial, but couldn’t resist going on to enthuse about results that were “quite dramatic.” They reported giving Sea Bands to children who felt sea-sick, and within minutes, “They were up and frisking around again.” And there was one young girl who stopped being seasick when she put the bands on, but was sick again when she took them off to fill in the questionnaire.

The CA don’t agree that they were misleading their readers, in spite of a forthright picture-caption saying, “Sea Bands might work for you” (and so might touching wood). They saw it as an advantage that Sea Bands do not produce side effects (neither does touching wood).

Naval Assessment

Enter the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM), who tested Sea Bands against the drug hycosine, sometimes known as scopalomine. (At sea, this gives good control of symptoms for some hours). But the INM also tested against two placebos. One was a dummy drug (Vitamin C), and the other was a dummy band (the Sea band with the plastic button reversed so that it didn’t press against the wrist. Eighteen male volunteers were exposed to a “cross coupled nauseogenic motion challenge.” In other words, they were blindfolded and rotated in a chair while they performed head movements to commands from a loudspeaker above them.

This may sound pretty innocuous, but in fact it’s a fairly severe test. It will bring on the first symptoms of vomiting within 15 to 20 minutes on average. Each subject was tested on the motion challenge on four separate occasions, with at least a week between each. The results? The hycosine had an effect. But Sea Bands? No better than the dummy remedies. In fact, it emerges that the US Naval Aerospace people had tested Sea Bands back in 1982. The results then? No benefit.

You can browse through Gray’s Anatomy until your thumb is sore, without ever finding any connection between your wrist and being seasick. So why on earth did anyone think there was anything in the idea in the first place?

The Acupuncture Connection

It turns out that a Mr D.S.J. Choy had come up with a “seasickness strap” in New York in 1982. The idea was to find a way of pressing against the Nei Guan or P6 acupressure point, which is situated two Chinese inches away from the wrist crease. Why? At the end of the trail we open The Treatment of Disease by Acupuncture by Felix Mann, President of the Medical Acupuncture Society. He lists the ailments you can cure by pressure on the wonderful P6 point:

“Headache, insomnia, dizziness, palpitation of heart, epilepsy, madness, easily frigthened, swelling under armpits, cramp of elbow, cardiac pain, vomiting, middle regions blocked full and swollen, spleen and stomach not harmonised, stomach very painful, gastritis, enteritis, swelling of abdomen, diarrhoea, hiccoughs, coughing, depleted and weary, summer-heat diseases, rheumatism of foot, jaundice, irregular periods, post-partum bleeding and dizziness, spermatorrhoea, nearly pulseless.”

It’s difficult enough to come up with a remedy that can make a firm claim to cure one specific ailment. Remedies that claim to cure everything from hiccups to madness can only expect to be taken seriously by mediaeval visitors from a time warp.

Sea Bands does list a medical advisor: Dr Stainton-Ellis, a retired medical man. But Dr Stainton-Ellis said he had little contact with the company, and it is not clear that he is actually called upon to do anything. He told me that Sea Bands “are now being used in pregnancy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

In fact, in these areas Sea Bands have not so much been “used” as put under test, usually by the same small group of enthusiasts. These studies have been heavily criticised for their statistics, their poor methodology, their lack of double-blind controls, and the fact that other researchers have been unable to reproduce the results. But acupressure is a mere ghostly cousin of acupuncture. So is it worth considering acupuncture itself before a sea voyage?

Dr Peter Skrabanek has surveyed the needle scene, and reported to the medical journal The Lancet on 26 May 1984: “numerous controlled trials have shown that the claims for acupuncture have no scientific validity<193> Let us leave quackupuncture to quacks and let us tell the misinformed patient the truth, so that he or she can choose.”

This article appeared recently in the The Skeptic (UK) and is reprinted by permission of the author.


Bernard Howard

1) After seeing Sea Bands advertised in the magazine of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Mr Jones made a formal complaint to the British Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis of the facts in the article above. The Authority’s response:

CONCLUSION: Complaint upheld. The advertisers failed to provide evidence for any of the claims. The Authority was concerned that the advertisers were unable to support the claims for the product as required by the Code, and requested that they cease making any claims for the wrist band until adequate substantiation could be made available.

2) Of a similar nature are “Isocones,” which are said to induce sleep in insomniacs by pressing on the acupressure point in the wrist. Unlike the Sea Bands, you must use a fresh Isocone each night on each wrist. Whether the acupressure points concerned with seasickness and sleeplessness are identical is not revealed by the advertisements for these products. If the points are different, it must require skill to press the right spot to produce the desired effect; if identical, the effect produced must depend entirely on the expectations of the subject, that is, our old friend the placebo effect.

3) For those interested, a member reports seeing Isocones for sale in a New Zealand pharmacy. Whether Sea Bands are available here is something we have not bothered to discover