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Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn revealed last Wednesday that she suffered a "deep muscle bruise" in her right shin after crashing during a training run earlier this month. Along with stretching, laser therapy, and painkillers, Vonn has reportedly wrapped her injured shin in a soft Austrian cheese called topfen in an effort to reduce swelling. Does cheese therapy actually work?
Probably not. Vonn's enthusiasm for this traditional Austrian remedy has met with skepticism from both medical professionals and dairy scientists. While no one has performed controlled clinical studies examining the effect of topically applied cheese on bruised tissue or any other musculoskeletal injury, experts believe that the skin's outermost layer, the stratum corneum, would likely prevent any beneficial compounds or microorganisms from reaching deeper tissues like muscle.
Topfen is the Austrian term for quark, a soft, tangy fresh cheese with the consistency of thick yogurt that's commonly consumed in Central Europe but not typically found in North America. Like other tart fermented dairy products, topfen has a high concentration of live lactic acid-producing bacteria. Some food scientists posit that the highly acidic environment created by a therapeutic cheese plaster might inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria on the skin's surface. It is unclear whether this would affect tissues like muscle that lie beneath.
Dairy chemists also raise the possibility that the cheese itself may naturally harbor anti-inflammatory compounds. Milk products contain a variety of biologically active proteins and protein fragments known as peptides. Studies show that some of these molecules can reduce inflammation or discourage the growth of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. However, these positive effects typically require oral consumption of the dairy product, as milk peptides generally can't penetrate the skin. Only very tiny chemicals can breach the epidermal barrier and migrate down to the underlying muscle.
In all likelihood, topfen's physiological benefits redound to its spreadable texture. Unlike other cultured dairy products like buttermilk or firm cheese, topfen can be slathered on like any other medicinal cream. When chilled, the product would feel cool on an inflamed limb and act as a mild analgesic. The cheese may also simply serve as a placebo, providing a small degree of mental comfort to an injured athlete. Since the brain plays such a significant role in the perception of pain, even discredited therapies can be slightly effective in treating injuries like Vonn's, where pain is the primary factor preventing peak performance.
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Explainer thanks Dean Sommer and John Lucey of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Stuart Warden of Indiana University, Art Hill of the University of Guelph, and Richard Guy of the University of Bath.*
Correction, Feb. 16, 2010: This piece originally misstated the first name of a professor at the University of Bath. He is Richard, not Robert, Guy.