Magnets as Medicine
By Bob Calandra
Reviewed By Gary Vogin
The pull of magnets as a pain relief therapy continues to grow despite most scientific studies showing they have little if any real value.
Nevertheless, people are spending millions on all things magnetic. Shoppers can buy magnetic jewelry, shoe inserts, mattress pads, and even magnet-conditioned water. There are magnet wraps for thumbs, wrists, knees, thighs, ankles, elbows, shoulders, shins, back, and head, some complete with endorsements from professional golfers. There are even magnet products for dogs and horses.
"If you can afford to spend the money and think magnets make you feel better, that's fine," says James Livingstone, a physicist at Boston's Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of The Natural Magic of Magnets. "I'm very skeptical. I can't convince myself to say it is totally impossible, but my own feeling is that 90-99% of it is nonsense."
Nonsense or not, the results of a magnet therapy study aren't likely to dampen the attraction. Conducted by the physical medicine and rehabilitation department at the University of Virginia Health System, the six-month study was designed to look at how static magnetic fields worked in treating fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition of unclear origin.
While overall the results were inconclusive, the study did find that participants using one brand of magnetic sleeping pad had a statistically significant lower pain rating than those using a second brand of pad or those using a demagnetized sham pad.
"We did find some interesting differences in the active pad group that tended to score better than the sham group," says Alan Alfano, MD, a UV medicine and rehabilitation physician and a member of the study team. "That was kind of interesting and, to be honest, a surprise to me because I didn't think we would see anything like that. We think that warrants more study."
The study used two popular commercial magnetic sleeping pads, as well as a sham pad manufactured to look like the other two. Researchers installed the pads and instructed participants not to test the pad to see if it was magnetized.
Alfano says the team was aware that a participant could easily figure out which pads were really magnetized -- by holding a paper clip near the pad, for instance -- something that could compromise the scientific validity of the study.
"I thought people might check to see if their magnet was active, but I don't think they did," he says. "It seems to me that they were very honest."
Prior to beginning the study, participants were interviewed, had their medical history taken, and underwent an examination for tender points on their bodies. Examinations were repeated three months and six months later. There was no statistical difference in most of the measures.
Most -- but not all.
"We did find that on the numeric pain scale there was a statistically significant difference with one of the active pads compared to the other groups," says Alfano. "To find anything under those circumstances I think is extraordinary."
Extraordinary as it may be, Alfano says he believes the study raised more questions than it answered.
"We did find something and we found enough to want to go and do more research," he says. "We do think there is something to it. We just don't know what conditions to study and under what parameters."
Nevertheless, Alfano says, the results are way too tenuous to draw any positive conclusions about the power of magnets to relieve pain.
"Our study was inconclusive," he says. "We feel that we can't endorse magnets based on our study. In my practice I don't endorse magnet therapy. I don't think, at this point, we have a research base to do that."
The lore of the medicinal benefits of magnets dates back to the ancient Greeks. But it wasn't until the Middle Ages that magnets as medicine hit it big. According to Livingstone, Paracelsus, a 15th-century physician and alchemist, believed that since magnets could attract iron they might also be able to round up diseases.
Today, magnets play an important role in mainstream medicine. They are used in instruments such as the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and in the developing area of magnetic pulse fields, used to treat Parkinson's disease.
"Those things are real," Livingstone says. "The magnetic pulse field is being looked at for treating depression. There is pretty good evidence that this is easy electric shock therapy."
The thinking behind magnet therapy is that it increases circulation and blood flow to the area wrapped or covered by magnets by attracting iron in the blood.
"I haven't seen good evidence of that," Livingstone says.
In fact, he says, the magnets sold commercially are simply too small and weak to penetrate much beyond the surface of the skin.
"The kind of forces of the magnetic field on the blood and nerve cells is really very small," he says.
Yet there are plenty of people, including doctors, who believe magnets work. And while most studies are negative, research conducted in 1997 at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston concluded that permanent magnets reduced pain in post-polio patients.
The study was small -- only 50 patients -- but 19% of the patients reported feeling better after using fake magnets. So combine those results with anecdotal evidence and the sheer complexity of the human body and you can understand why Livingstone is hesitant to declare magnet therapy an out-and-out hoax.
The findings from the University of Virginia study will most likely fire up the controversy. While it doesn't say magnet therapy works, the study does leave the door slightly ajar.
"We knew fibromyalgia was difficult to study, but we wanted to do a realistic study with some benefit," Alfano says. "We knew these are the people who are out there buying magnets."
Still, Alfano recommends that people suffering with pain first try mainstream medicine.
"You really need to go and have a complete and comprehensive examination by a physician to make sure that you don't have a condition that is treatable or potentially dangerous," he says.
If a patient insists on using magnets, however, Alfano says it should be under the supervision of a physician.
"I would say that in general we haven't seen any harmful side effects from magnets," he says. "But we just don't know about the long-term health effects."
Bob Calandra is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several magazines, including People and Life.
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