Magnet Therapy: What's the Attraction?

What is magnet therapy?

It's a therapeutic technique based on the idea that magnets can reduce pain and speed the natural healing process by manipulating your body's own natural magnetic energy. The practice has been traced back to ancient times in places like Egypt, Greece, and China, and it continues to enjoy a loyal following today, particularly among athletes and musicians who use magnets to treat overuse injuries. In 1997, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston published a study reporting that magnets had significantly reduced joint and muscle pain. Although majority of health professionals remain skeptical of magnet therapy, magnets have become big business in the United States.

What does magnet therapy involve?

You can buy all kinds of products containing magnets for therapeutic use: headbands, wristbands, face masks, elbow and knee braces, shoe inserts, car seat-covers, mattress pads, even magnetic faux pearl jewelry. The magnets in these items are generally at least twice as strong as the typical refrigerator magnet (which has a force of 60 to 100 gauss, the unit of magnetic strength), but much weaker than what you'd get from an MRI. (A magnetic resonance imaging device bounces about 10,000 to 30,000 gauss of magnetic energy off the atoms in your body in order to create a picture of your insides.) Proponents recommend that you apply magnets directly to painful spots and use them continuously (except in the shower) as long as the pain lasts.

Does it work?

Most experts aren't convinced yet because studies have been small and have conflicting results. The Baylor researchers rounded up 50 patients suffering from post-polio syndrome, a condition of muscle weakness and arthritis-like pain that can strike adults who had polio as children. The patients were asked to rate their pain on a ten-point scale; then half of them had magnets taped to painful areas for 45 minutes, while the other half were taped with dummy devices. When they were asked to rate their pain again afterward, 76 percent of those treated with magnets reported a significant improvement, compared with only 19 percent of the placebo group. While these results are intriguing, previous studies found no benefits from using magnets. Today, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says that overall scientific evidence does not support the use of magnets for pain. It continues to study their potential, however.

No one knows exactly how magnets might work. We do know that human cells and molecules have their own subtle magnetic energy. The authors of the Baylor study think that magnets of 300 to 500 gauss may somehow interfere with the receptors that transmit pain signals to the brain. Some advocates believe that magnets trigger the production of natural painkillers known as endorphins. Others think they may function like acupuncture needles when applied to trigger points on the body. Still, to date the Baylor study appears to have been a fluke.

How safe is it?

Although there are no documented side effects from using magnets, proponents warn that they can cause dizziness or nausea in some people and should not be used by pregnant women or people using medical devices. Magnets may interfere with the operation of pacemakers, insulin pumps, and other implanted medical devices. (They can also deactivate credit cards and foul up computer disks.) Proponents warn against using a magnet on an open wound or during the first few days after an injury, since it may cause an increase in blood flow that could aggravate swelling, prolong bleeding, and slow the healing process. If you have a serious injury or problems with chronic pain, see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment options before attempting to treat yourself with magnets.

References

Vallbona C; Hazlewood CF; Jurida G. Response of pain to static magnetic fields in postpolio patients: a double-blind pilot study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1997 Nov;78(11):1200-3

Eccles NK et al. A pilot study to determine whether a static magnetic device can promote chronic leg ulcer healting. Journal of Wound Care. 14(2):64-7. February 2005.

Eccles NK. Static magnets prevent leg ulcer recurrence: savings for the NHS? British Journal of Community Nursing. 11(3):S26, S28-30. March 2006.

Sarac AJ. Complementary and alternative medical therapies in fibromyalgia. Current Parmaceutical Design. 12(1):47-57. 2006.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Magnets for Pain. March 2009.

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