New device fuels sports recovery movement

Several USC sports teams have begun using the firefly, a small device intended to increase blood-flow after games, practices and workouts. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Campbell)

For decades, sports has centered on the notion that the longer you practice and the harder you train, the better you’ll play. In recent years, that appears to have changed.

“It used to be about being stronger, being faster, being in the weight room, getting in as much time as you can performing and training and [practicing],” said Anthony Kjenstad, founder and president of Athletic Recovery and Performance. “Now, there is probably as much of a push to make sure you are recovering as well as you can so that you perform optimally.” 

Traditional electrical muscle stimulation devices were used at schools across the country to help college athletes recover after games and practices. These devices were often large and bulky and required athletes to slip cumbersome boots on their legs to reap the benefits of the treatment. 

But innovation is on the rise as this idea of improving sports recovery surfaces. According to Russ Romano, head athletic trainer at USC, the firefly, a device exclusively distributed by Athletic Recovery and Performance, is beginning to change the sports recovery landscape.

“You can be hooked up to recovery boots,” Romano said. “Those exist, but you’ve got to plug those into an electrical outlet, or they’re battery-operated and you have to wear these bulky boots … but [with] fireflies, I can carry 50 pairs of fireflies in a Ziploc bag. I can’t carry 50 pairs of boots.” 

The firefly is an electric sports recovery device that stimulates the common peroneal nerve on the knee to elicit a muscle contraction in the calf that stimulates blood flow. It comprises a small adhesive strip that wraps around the knee and sends a small, painless electrical stimulus to the nerve. 

“You will get two things out of it,” Kjenstad said. “If you’re running blood to your heart faster, you’re going to get more oxygenation in your blood … so that’s going to help you with overall performance recovery by reoxygenating your blood and running it through your system faster. The other component you’re going to get from the firefly is an increase in lower extremity microcirculation by 400%.” 

The firefly has entered USC at a time when there is growing concern regarding young athletes injuring themselves so early on in their career. The issue has already started to affect USC, as prominent athletes such as football sophomore quarterback JT Daniels and soccer junior midfielder Savannah DeMelo — among others — have suffered injuries that threaten not only their health this season but possibly their future careers as well. 

Kjenstad said that increase in microcirculation translates to a feeling of fresher legs after working out by reducing delayed onset muscle syndrome — soreness caused by muscle inflammation shortly after working out. 

In layman’s terms, the firefly increases blood flow in the lower body to help athletes recover faster from workouts, practices and games. 

The device came to Romano’s attention when a former knee brace representative introduced him to the product. Before then, the technology had been used in British hospitals to prevent blood clots. It has only recently been re-engineered into a sports recovery product. 

Romano confesses that at first, he just saw the firefly as one of the many recovery devices that he has been pitched over the years. 

“I get pitched [new technology] all the time,” he said. 

Still, the research supporting the firefly was convincing, so Romano and his team decided to give the device a try. 

With the help of a team physician, Romano used a diagnostic ultrasound machine to examine a blood vessel in his knee. While wearing the firefly, Romano and the physician monitored the vessel as the device was turned on and off. 

“We were able to demonstrate that not too much was happening — normal blood flow was going on with the device off,” Romano said. “When I turned the device on, [I] saw a big effect [on] blood flow.” 

When the device was turned off, Romano’s blood flow quickly returned to its previous state. 

“[The research papers] definitely validated the product as a device to increase blood flow,” Romano said. “But from a recovery standpoint, [the diagnostic ultrasound] really validated it for me in addition to those other papers [because] I saw it first hand.” 

After determining the firefly’s efficacy, Romano and USC gradually introduced it to the University’s athletes. 

“USC was a very early adopter,” Kjenstad recalled. “It’s only grown with USC. Again, they’re probably one of the few schools that uses it across all of their sports — not [only] what I would call the money sports like football and basketball.” 

According to Kjenstad and Romano, USC’s football, basketball, soccer, rugby, lacrosse and rowing teams have all used the product. Due to concerns regarding potential NCAA violations, players on the teams could not be contacted for fear of their being perceived to endorse a product.

Still, Romano was able to provide some insight into how the product has been received amongst Trojans. 

“I’ve had some players come to me and say, ‘Yeah, these were great, I wasn’t as sore as I usually would expect to be after a game like this,’” Romano said. “One [football] player told me that he usually would have muscle cramps every time [we traveled] … This person had cramped throughout their career, and the firefly eliminated that.” 

When asked whether or not USC plans to continue using the product, Romano was quick to respond. 

“Yes,” Romano said. “I’m really pleased with it. I think there’s a direct benefit, otherwise we wouldn’t use them.” 

Beyond continued use among USC’s athletic teams, Romano says the USC intends to study the broader implications the device might have on the field of sports recovery. 

“We’re looking at it to see where it can benefit post-injury,” Romano said. “We’re looking at it to see the effects of increasing blood-flow — what’s in the blood that’s beneficial to the body … Those are the things we don’t fully understand but we’re trying to get a better picture of it.” 

Despite the positive reception of the firefly thus far, Romano stresses that there is still much more to athletic recovery. 

“It’s an adjunct to all the things that assist in recovery,” Romano said. “Getting ample sleep is really important. Post-game nutrition and hydration are extremely important in the recovery process. The fireflies play a role in that but you have to do a combination of things to be successful.”