Why Do Hockey Players Use Smelling Salts

All serious hockey fans must have encountered this question at some point, Why do hockey players use smelling salts? Everyone is familiar with the intriguing sight, you will see it when players in getting ready to jump off the bench and into the game. Some players only use it before warmups while some will use it during the game, but what is the reason for using smelling salts? 

At this juncture, you would see support staff handing over small white vials to the players. The players on their parts crack them open and smell them, instantaneously exhibiting signs energy and alertness. They have those funny expressions that sometimes find their way into funny hockey photographs. Noses twitch, faces contort, and you see some of them shaking their heads after a sniff. 

Wait, are you missing out on something here? Are these some kinds of performance-enhancing drugs? If so, is it even legal to sniff these? In a word, yes, smelling salts are 100% legal. Neither are these labeled under performance enhancement drugs, although it is what the athletes tend to believe. The nasal jolt is caused due to a sudden stimulation of the vagus nerve. 

Some hockey players happen to believe that this pre-game ritual is integral to get in the mood for a high-voltage hockey game. It has grown into so much of a powerful ritual over the years that most hockey players cannot even imagine jumping into a game without taking a whiff.

It is difficult to say how this trend caught up. No one can probably answer, which was the first team that thought this thing is great. However, one thing is certain. Nowadays, all teams use it, especially in the NHL. This raises an important question, though. If either opponent swears by it, then who gets the edge? The answer is both and none. Apparently, it’s more of a mental thing than a physical phenomenon. 

To be clear, science does not support the theory that smelling salts cause an increase in performance level. If it were a performance-enhancing drug, it would have been long banned. It works because there’s a consensus among players that it does. In simpler terms, it is a powerful superstition with a strong physical effect. Smelling salt is something which you can really feel in the head, even if for a few moments. And, those few moments supposedly charge you up enough to give out an electrifying performance at a heavy-duty game of hockey.

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What Are Smelling Salts?

The smelling salts used by athletes are a mixture of dilute ammonia in water and ethanol. Medically speaking, these should be rather called aromatic ammoniac spirits. It is available in thin glass vials, sheathed in cotton. The vial consists of 0.3 ml of a red liquid, 35% alcohol, 15% ammonia, and some other ingredients (not listed on the label). The cotton sheath has a demarcation saying, ‘crush here and discard after use.

As one squeezes the vial, it breaks down, releasing a mixture of ammonia and carbon-di-oxide. It is this ammonia that causes a sudden jolt. However, you should not be trying out DIY methods of preparing ammonia. Neither should you directly sniff from a vial of ammonia. It would cause some major discomfort, to say the least!

You can buy ammonia from an online marketplace or over-the-counter at your local chemist’s shop. You can even find homemade recipes at online forums. However, you should stick to the vials. Any effort at homemade ammonia could ultimately prove to be bad for health. 

What are smelling salts from a historical perspective? It is interesting to note that there’s a long tradition to use ‘smelling salts.’ Physicians in Victorian England frequently used these to restore consciousness. Alchemists from the early 13th century used a substance called sal ammoniac. In the writings of Pliny, there’s a reference to a substance called Hammoniacus sal, although it is not known for certain if it is the same as sal ammoniac. Even Chaucer noted the use of sal ammoniac for various purposes. 

In the 17th century, there is the reference to an aqueous solution of ammonia which was used after crystallization. These crystals were mixed with perfumes and used as smelling salts. In the 1900s, doctors attending soldiers during wars carried vials of smelling salts. When a soldier suffered from an injury, and the doctor wanted him to stay awake, this ammoniac solution was used for keeping conciousness. 

In the history of modern sports, it has been most commonly known to be used by boxers after they lost consciousness. Probably, it’s from there that the use of smelling salts in hockey has caught up traction.

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How Do Smelling Salts Work

So, how do smelling salts work? When you carefully wave it under the nose, the pungent smell of ammonia stimulates the vagus nerve. It is the motor nerve associated with the heart and bronchi. As a result, there is a sudden increase in blood flow, and breathing also gets faster. 

In other words, they trigger an inhalation reflex. This reflex alters the breathing pattern by speeding it up. Players come to associate this sensation as a wake-up call that it is game time. Repeated use of smelling salts over time seems to instill this instinctive belief firmly. 

Scientists assess that the effect of smelling salts only lasts for a few seconds. You can compare it with spraying perfume in the air. For a few moments, the smell lingers on before dissipating. However, the mental effect lasts much longer, at least up to the end of the game. 

Players often admit that their habit of using smelling salts before the game gives them a boost to go out on the rink and give their best. Some players are also known to use it in the middle of the game, especially when they are on the losing side and require that extra boost to get into game mode.

Is There Science Behind Using Smelling Salts

A general poll revealed that up to 80% of players in the NHL use smelling salts. This percentage can be even higher as it is rare to find someone not sniffing those small vials before the game. With their prevalence, it is natural to ask the question, is there science behind using smelling salts

To start with, these are FDA-approved products, but there’s a catch. The FDA does not recommend its usage if you have an injury in the head, neck, or back region. Neither is there any correlation between smelling salts and improvement of athletic performance, according to the FDA. The proper scientific explanation of its use may be derived from a psychological standpoint. Athletes often feel pre-game jitters and the need to charge themselves up before embarking on a game. Through repeated use, and aided by popular belief, they seem to associate its use to mental stimulation. It can be something of a confirmation bias. This happens when people accept anything right as per their intuition and refute any negative claims about that thing, even though it may be valid. 

It is safe to say that it is more of a superstition than it is a scientific thing. Then again, superstitions are common in all types of sports, and especially so in hockey. Players are known to carry amulets and lucky things with them. Some players wear their gear in a certain order, and others walk in a particular way to invoke good luck. Having faith in luck might have no scientific basis, but no regulations are prohibiting them either. Players have all the rights to feel lucky as long as they don’t adapt to unfair means for winning the game, and a lot feel comfortable doing these are part of their daily routine.

Another possible scientific explanation is that players use smelling salts because just before starting the game, they spend about 20 minutes in the dressing room. As you see, they do not get any physical exercise to warm up, and the body may start to ‘cool down.’ The smelling salt supposedly cancels this cooling down effect and activates the consciousness of players so they are ready to play their best.

Dangers of Using Smelling Salts

With so much being said about their use, it is important to investigate the possible side effects of sniffing ammonia solution.  What are the dangers of using smelling salts incorrectly? The correct way of using them is to keep the vial a few inches from the nose and take a strong whiff. If you feel nauseated by the smell of ammonia, don’t use it. It is a strong odor and is probably not suitable for everyone. Holding it too close to the nose can singe the skin, so always maintain a distance of a few inches. 

Furthermore, if you have had an injury in the head, neck, or back, be advised against the sudden jolt caused by smelling salts. The jolt can further aggravate the pain. Avoid giving smelling salts to kids playing hockey. All things said, it is not a very healthy habit. Also, in case of a serious injury, using smelling salts can delay the actual treatment, which can turn out to be serious.

How Often Do You Need to Use Smelling Salts

It is not addictive, and so you will not develop a habit of sniffing it all the time. As for actual use during games, you should limit it to just before the game starts. If you feel inclined, and think it helps, you can proceed to sniff it mid-game when you have the intermission time.

Where Do You Buy Hockey Smelling Salts?

These are not contraband substances, and you can easily buy them from a suitable online marketplace. Just make sure that it is a genuine product you are buying. Read the reviews and choose well. For more on where to buy hockey smelling salts, you can contact your local chemist. You don’t need a prescription for smelling salts.

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