What's that magic World Cup spray?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 22 2006 6:41 PM

What's That Magic Spray?

The World Cup's special injury potion, revealed.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Avid watchers of the World Cup soccer tournament have seen the same peculiar scene over and over again: Team doctors tend to an injured player by dousing his wound with a so-called magic spray. Moments later he's on his feet and racing down the pitch. What is this magic spray, and where can I get some?

It could be anything. Trainers might resort to any of several remedies for an on-field treatment, all of which can come out of a spray can or bottle. They might use cold water, for example, to cool off an overheated athlete. Or they might spray an abrasion with a tincture of benzoin so they can stick a bandage on some sweaty skin. It's safe to assume that some magic spray cans contain "skin refrigerants," chemicals like ethyl chloride that freeze and numb the surface of the skin on contact.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Skin refrigerants are easy to order online—a few bucks will get you a small can of a dimethyl ether "coolant cold spray"—but they may not help your injury very much. Some trainers don't bother with cold sprays, arguing that they provide at most a few minutes of anesthesia. That's enough to help you out if you're at the doctor's office and you're about to get a shot. But it's not going to do much for your dinged knee over the course of a soccer match. The cold spray's proponents say it can have positive psychological effects, and that it is most effective for injuries that cause a lot of pain over a short period of time, like a badly stubbed toe.

For fans, the phrase "magic spray" refers to the potion's impossible restorative powers. If the magic spray "works," the player probably took a dive and faked his injury. Magical soccer cure-alls are nothing new. The sprays are in vogue now, but the team docs used to treat phantom injuries with something called the "magic sponge."

Magic spray may be an invention of professional soccer, but skin refrigerants have been around for a long time. In the mid-1860s, a doctor named Benjamin Richardson developed the first aerosol to be used as a cooling anesthetic. The Nation printed an account of his magic spray can in May of 1866: "By employing in this instrument some highly volatile liquid, like ether, and throwing this out as a volume of fine spray, there would be produced, by the evaporation of the ether, such intense cold as would quickly benumb, and so render insensible to pain, any small portion of the human body that might be subjected to it."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jon Schriner of the American College of Sports Medicine.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

So, Apple Is Not Shuttering Beats, but the Streaming Service Will Probably Be Folded Into iTunes

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 5:45 PM The University of California Corrects “Injustice” by Making Its Rich Chancellors Even Richer
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.