It’s almost game time. “The Star-Spangled Banner” just concluded, the crowd is going berserk and the camera is panning the sideline to capture players preparing for battle. Suddenly, you catch a glimpse of something strange. One player appears to be holding something under his nose, intensely sniffing an unidentifiable substance. His eyes grow wider with every deep inhale. What the heck is he doing?
Odds are, he’s using smelling salts. Cameras have captured pro athletes like Tom Brady, Alex Ovechkin and Derrick Rose using smelling salts to get in the zone before a big game. Although they’ve been around for a long time, few people know much about smelling salts—even the athletes who use them. Here’s everything you need to know about this interesting pre-game ritual.
What Are Smelling Salts?
Most smelling salts are basically just a preparation of ammonium carbonate and perfume. They’re also known as ammonia capsules.
Why are they called smelling salts? For one, they are a salt—at least according to the definition you find in a chemistry textbook. In that context, a salt is “any chemical compound formed from the reaction of an acid with a base, with all or part of the hydrogen of the acid replaced by a metal or other cation.” The “smelling” part is obvious—the effects are achieved by holding them under your nose and inhaling.
What Do Smelling Salts Do?
Smelling salts are most frequently used to increase alertness and consciousness—essentially, they get you “hyped up.”
This is due to the inhalation of ammonia gas that occurs when you use smelling salts. According to the National Institute of Health, the inhalation of ammonia gas “irritates the membranes of the nose and lungs, and thereby triggers an inhalation reflex that alters the pattern of breathing, resulting in improved respiratory flow rates and possibly alertness.” This altered pattern of breathing is why many people seem to start gasping after they inhale smelling salts—their bodies are trying to take in as much oxygen as possible.
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Do Smelling Salts Really Work?
If by “work” you mean “increase alertness,” the answer is yes. The ammonia irritates the membranes in your nose and lungs, which initiates an involuntary inhalation reflex. Your breathing rate goes up significantly, which increases alertness and can even lead to slight increases in overall strength. According to Dr. Mike T. Nelson, exercise physiologist and member of the American College of Sports Medicine, “Your breathing is closely tied to your heart rate. If you put a heart monitor on someone and they start breathing faster—even if they’re just sitting at rest—you’ll see their heart rate begin to go up. The body thinks, ‘hey, we’re breathing harder, we must be working harder, we need to increase our heart rate to regulate our air and oxygen and get out the CO2.'” This happens almost instantaneously, since smelling salts trigger an “acute arousal effect.”
Once your heart rate begins to pick up, your sympathetic nervous system begins to take over. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight response, and it’s activated during stressful situations. Smelling salts activate the sympathetic nervous system, which not only increases your heart rate and arousal, but also potentially slightly increases your overall strength—although any increase would come with a decrease in your fine motor skills.
Dr. Nelson says, “If you look at power lifters, you’ll see a lot of people using smelling salts before a big lift. The reason is because ammonia increases arousal, heart rate, all that sort of stuff. When that happens, you are stronger from a gross motor standpoint. So if the task is to measure strength without much skill or technique, you do see an increase in that. The caveat is you see a decrease in fine motor ability, which is probably why you don’t see Olympic lifters using smelling salts—their sport is more technique and skill-based. If you took a few whiffs of smelling salt and then tried to thread a needle, good frigging luck.”
One study found that using smelling salts can increase muscle action potential, though the results were not conclusive.
There’s also the fact that smelling salts might stimulate a placebo effect. If players believe they feel more charged up after using them and it helps them feel better, there’s a chance their performance could increase because of their increased confidence.
Are Smelling Salts Safe?
Smelling salts have been around since the 13th century. They are available at nearly every major online retailer and some brick-and-mortar drug stores. They’re affordable, and they are not banned by the major pro sports leagues, the NCAA or high school athletic associations. All of that could lead you to think that smelling salts are perfectly safe, but that’s not necessarily the case. Although no studies have proved they are dangerous, no studies have proved they’re extremely safe either. Pro athletes might be able to get away with using them, but they are probably not a good idea for younger athletes.
“Even if you assume they’re safe, the response you get from them is such an increase in arousal—and the effect could be larger for younger kids—that it sounds like a recipe for someone to potentially injure themselves,” says Dr. Nelson. “Even if you do have an increase in gross motor strength, young athletes don’t have enough reps or experience to sacrifice their motor skills. I just think overall, it’s not a good idea.”
Mike Reinold, physical therapist and former Head Athletic Trainer for the Boston Red Sox, echoes that sentiment. He says, “It’s essentially ammonia. I wouldn’t suggest kids sniff a gas just to get amped up.”
Another issue relates to the use of smelling salts to help athletes regain consciousness or to clear the fog after they get their bell rung. These uses were formerly quite popular, but the growing knowledge about concussions has proven them to be extremely dangerous. If you take a hard hit and feel dizzy and out of it, the last thing you should do is use a substance to momentarily snap you out of it so you can continue playing.
Using a substance to override the body’s natural defenses simply isn’t smart—which is why smelling salts have been banned for decades in professional boxing. Back when they were legal, fighters who could barely stand would sniff smelling salts between rounds and regain clarity. That helped them continue fighting when they had no business still being in the ring.
It’s also not a great idea to use smelling salts in an attempt to wake an unconscious player, as it could exacerbate an injury. “I wouldn’t use it to regain consciousness. If someone had a head injury and lost consciousness, I would not want to try to jerk them back into consciousness,” Reinold says.
Are There Any Alternatives?
True, smelling salts increase alertness and potentially gross motor strength, but they do so at the cost of losing fine motor skills and decision-making skills. “For a position that requires lots of poise and technique, like quarterback, smelling salts before a game is probably the last thing you’d want to do. When you watch subpar quarterbacks play, it’s usually not that they physically can’t perform, it’s that their decision-making goes to hell. When you watch elite quarterbacks, you can see that they’re calm, collected and focused, even when the pocket is collapsing around them. They seem less likely to make poor decisions due to their stress level,” says Dr. Nelson. He recommends deep breathing techniques as an alternative pre-game ritual, especially for athletes who get anxious before the competition. We’ve all seen athletes perform poorly at the beginning of a big game, missing easy shots or dropping catchable passes. Commentators typically chalk this up to nerves, and they’re usually right.
Deep breathing before an event has been shown to reduce performance anxiety and slow the heart rate. For certain athletes, this is much more beneficial than the effects of smelling salts. Check out the link below for tips on deep breathing.
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