Olympians and pro athletes provide a high-profile push for titanium in healing
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Metals get a bad rap. There's the surge in reports of mercury found in seafood worldwide, and a popular trend of purging heavy metals from the blood as part of a "detox" regime.
Another metal used for thousands of years in paints -- lead -- has been proven highly toxic, causing nervous-system impairment, renal disease and reproductive damage.
The word "metal" is synonymous in English literature with coldness, rigidity and general deficiency of human traits.
In the health and wellness industry, however, certain metals are promoted as helpers, rejuvenators and healers. While "healing with gemstones" might be a hackneyed catchphrase for fans of "new-age" healing modalities, "healing with metals" is a trend that has spread through several countries, in several forms.
Among the most prominent of these so-called healing metals is titanium.
Named after the powerful Titan deities of Greek mythology, titanium is as strong as steel but nearly half as light. Because it does not react or interfere with the chemistry of the human body, titanium has been used for decades as a "biomaterial," to augment and replace damaged body parts (including bones and joints).
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Bracelets containing titanium bear Major League Baseball team names and logos.
About 10 years ago the Japan-based Phiten Co. developed a patented technology to make the metal water-soluble, so can be fused inside fabrics, tapes, athletic support devices, necklaces and even lotions.
High-profile athletes have brought titanium products international exposure: At the Summer Olympics in Beijing, many athletes sported titanium-infused necklaces, bracelets and sports tape. Major League Baseball players have also given the products high-profile television exposure.
"Pitching at my age, my body structure gets tired," Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks says in an endorsement for Phiten. "I'm always trying to find a product that will make me better, to recover quicker, to be stronger ..."
While much of Phiten's success rests on scientifically unsubstantiated claims that the products can increase circulation, improve recovery time, reduce pain and facilitate the mental focus and stamina required of athletics, the company has had great success through such high-profile testimonials and word-of-mouth advertising.
Paul Vaughn, general manager for Phiten Hawaii, says he's found that word about the products spreads quickly once any individual gains relief from aches and pains. "When you help one person here in Hawaii, they're going to tell all their family and friends and everybody at work."
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Christine Uehara wears titanium products -- an armband and a Hello Kitty bracelet. She's holding two Tornado bracelets twisted together.
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Phiten Hawaii Co. has seen a surge in demand for its titanium products in the last few years, due largely to word-of-mouth advertising and celebrity endorsements, including star pitcher Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Paula Radcliffe, the 2007 New York Marathon women's winner.
Radcliffe's marathon victory came just nine months after she gave birth to a daughter, and exposed thousands of fans and viewers to one of Phiten's top-selling products, a titanium necklace.
The same necklace is sported by more than 200 Major League Baseball players and more than 80 percent of Japanese baseball players, leading many to think that it's just part of their uniforms.
"Considering that baseball players rub snake oil on their arms, smear mascara under their eyes and keep pine tar stored on their helmets, it should come as no surprise that they are starting to wear necklaces embedded with titanium," wrote sports writer Lee Jenkins, of the International Herald Tribune.
Jenkins' comment highlights a typical criticism -- that titanium products touted as healing aids might in fact be just placebos.
"Phild Processing," Phiten's patented process for using titanium in items such as fabric and liquids, is a closely guarded secret, which can raise red flags for naysayers. But Paul Vaughn, general manager for Phiten Hawaii, says the proof is in the results.
Vaughn says he invites customers to try a bit of titanium tape on a sore spot. "We'll tell them to shrug their shoulders and say, 'Do you feel that knot?' and they'll say, 'Yes, I've had that for years.'"
After applying a titanium patch, he says, many people can instantly feel the difference.
The "try it" approach and low-pressure sales strategy, combined with the relatively low prices of their best-selling bracelets and necklaces ($6 to $60) make Phiten a low-investment option for those investigating healing alternatives.
The strategy has been a success, and Phiten now has more than 150 stores worldwide, a new line of Major League Baseball-monikered products (your team's logo on wearable titanium) and a boost in visibility from the Olympics, where athletes could be seen donning the "magic metal."
Vaughn uses the image of a television set with a static-filled picture to explain how the products can ease pain and supplement healing. "If you stabilize the current, almost instantly the picture becomes clear." Titanium, a good conductor of electricity, he says, works in a similar manner to stabilize energy flow within the body.
Honolulu businessman Steve Anderson said titanium products have helped him, but not dramatically. "I'd say I've felt an improvement in the pain in my knees, but nothing miraculous. I'd say it feels about 20 percent better than without the titanium braces."
Anderson also said that his wife uses the products, including titanium lotions, but notices only a slight difference.
Another local Phiten customer, Balwan Singh, is more enthusiastic. Singh is a bus driver for Alamo Rent a Car at Honolulu Airport and must repeatedly lift heavy suitcases for passengers.
"The titanium really works for my shoulder, where I've had some repetitive stress injury," Singh said. "I don't know why or how, but I can feel it. It works."
Phiten Hawaii has a straight-trade deal with the University of Hawaii athletic department, which receives Phiten products in exchange for signage at UH athletic venues. Not only does the company name get attention, but players can be seen wearing the products.
Whether the result of smart marketing or legitimate healing value, Phiten is clearly set to conquer the local market for healthy metals. Other companies make titanium products, but Phiten has focused its expansion in Hawaii through the UH connection and limited-edition products specific to the islands in design and color scheme.
Phiten products are carried at Longs Drug Stores, notably its AQUAmirum G bottled water, which features water-soluble gold. Phiten also offers water products featuring blends of gold and silver, with benefits ranging from increased energy to bolstered immunity.
"It's suspicious," says Dr. Kate Schofield, a Cincinnati-based chiropractor with a summer home in Kailua. "There is zero evidence. It might all be a wonderful marketing of the placebo effect. But it seems harmless."
Phiten Hawaii is at 1440 Kapiolani Blvd., No. 104. Call 942-5500.