“The Healthy Geezer” answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.
Question: Can magnets relieve pain?
Answer: Here’s the official position of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the medical research agency of the federal government:
“Preliminary scientific studies of magnets for pain have produced mixed results. Overall, there is no convincing scientific evidence to support claims that magnets can relieve pain of any type. Some studies, including a recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical trial for back pain, suggest the possibility of a small benefit from using magnets for pain. However, the majority of rigorous studies have found no effect on pain. More research on magnets for pain is needed before reaching any firm conclusion.”
People have been using magnets to improve health for a long time. In the third century A.D., the Greeks were treating arthritis with magnets. Medieval doctors used magnets to treat gout, poisoning, and baldness. During the American Civil War, some used magnetic hairbrushes, shoe insoles, ointments and magnet-adorned clothing to treat maladies of many types.
Today, magnets are popular for pain relief in shoe insoles, bracelets, headbands, belts and mattress pads. Lack of regulation and widespread public acceptance have turned magnetic therapy into a $5 billion world market.
A magnet produces a force called a magnetic field. Static magnets have magnetic fields that do not change. Electromagnets generate magnetic fields only when electrical current flows through them.
Magnet advocates claim that sufferers need more magnetic fields in their bodies. Magnets are supposed to increase your magnetic fields and make you feel better.
Magnets are considered safe when placed on skin. However, they present a danger to those using pacemakers, defibrillators or insulin pumps because magnets can interfere with these devices. People with metal implants should also avoid magnets.
Magnet therapy has not been tested for safety in pregnancy and infancy, and there is some evidence in animals that it could damage the brain of a developing embryo or newborn. One animal study indicated that sperm might be adversely affected by magnet therapy.
“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 to 99 percent of it is nonsense.”
However, magnets are a useful tool in mainstream medicine. They are used for diagnosis in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and in magnetic pulse fields used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
There is a relatively new procedure known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) that is used to treat moderate depression when medication and psychotherapy aren’t effective. During TMS, doctors place an electromagnet against your head.
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Magnetism can refer to the alteration of gravitational pull to the North Pole as well as to the invisible attraction two people feel toward one another. Both definitions, however, indicate a hidden but palpable force that pulls one object to another.
Historically, magnetism was discussed as early as 625 bc. in the writings of Aristotle.1 Later, mariners learned that magnetic rocks known as lodestones acted dependably as compasses when suspended from a string. With unfailing accuracy, the stone would come to rest in a north-south line, thus indicating the direction of the ship.2
All magnets have positively and negatively charged poles. Magnets bond when opposing poles are placed next to each other and repel when like poles face each other.
The medical uses of magnets are still being explored. More than $1 billion worth of OTC therapeutic magnets have been sold worldwide to date.3
The gauss (G) is the unit of measurement of a magnetic field. The earth’s magnetic field on its surface is approximately 0.5 G. Commercially available magnets usually claim strengths of anywhere from 300 G to 5,000 G; an electromagnet used in an MRI machine is 15,000 G or higher.
Basic research shows that when a magnet is placed on the skin, capillary walls relax, allowing for increased blood flow and oxygenation and removal of accumulated pain-producing prostaglandins. Theoretically, these actions relieve muscle spasms and, subsequently, pain.4
Since pain transmission requires the electrical activity found in nerve and muscle cells, properly aligned magnets could either block that action or, in cases of injury, promote healing.5 Magnets can be used in a constant, uninterrupted application (static therapy) or with manipulation of the magnetic field (pulsed therapy).
A meta-analysis of published clinical trials testing the efficacy of magnet therapy for pain showed no clear, statistically significant differences.6 Of the 29 studies examined, nine were randomized, placebo-controlled trials that explored the use of magnets for musculoskeletal pain. Four of these trials demonstrated a measurable reduction in pain but were not consistent in the strength of magnet used, length of use, and positioning of the magnets.
Of the four studies showing positive results, one was a small trial examining the effect of magnet therapy on fibromyalgia pain.7 This trial utilized a magnetic mattress pad of 1,100 G. Participants were randomized either to a placebo pad or the magnetic pad, and slept on the same pad for 16 weeks.
The patients were assessed for pain, fatigue, myalgia, physical function and sleep quality using the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire. The magnetic pad group had statistically significant improvement in all areas compared with little or no change in the placebo group.
A small clinical trial used pulsed electromagnetic therapy (PEMT) to treat chronic low back pain.8 A total of 36 patients were randomized to PEMT or placebo treatment performed three times a week for three weeks. Patients were then followed for four weeks and asked to rate their pain on a numerical scale. Individuals in the treatment group reported a statistically significant decrease in pain for the entire month.
Another unique trial evaluated the efficacy of magnet therapy for menstrual pelvic pain.9 A device in the underwear secured the magnets to assure contact with the pelvis.
In this trial, 35 women with documented dysmenorrhea were randomized to wear either a strong magnet garment or a weaker magnetic placebo device for the two days prior to menses until the end of their cycle. Blinded results assessed by the McGill Pain Questionnaire showed a statistically significant reduction in pain in the group wearing the strong-magnet garment.
Redness of the skin in contact with the magnet has been reported, but most cases self-resolve within 24 hours of removal of the device. Patients who use cardiac pacemakers, implanted automatic defibrillators, or insulin pumps should not use magnet therapy without consulting their health-care provider.
Some manufacturers warn that magnets can interfere with the pharmacokinetics of transdermal medications, such as pain patches. Although this theory has not been proven, it warrants consideration.
COST, HOW SUPPLIED
The cost of magnet therapy is highly variable. Generally, the cost of the device rises with the quality and strength and varies from as low as $10 to as much as $100 or more. Patients should thoroughly research any product before buying.
Magnet therapy is still on the outer fringe of any sort of evidence-based practice. However, even the studies that did not show benefit failed to show any negative safety issues. Consequently, health-care professionals should be aware of the emerging data and help their patients make informed decisions regarding magnet therapy.
- Basford JR. A historical perspective of the popular use of electric and magnetic therapy. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2001;82:1261-1269.
- Boyer TH. The force on a magnetic dipole. Am J Physics. 1988;56:688-692.
- Kuipers NT, Sauder CL, Ray CA. Influence of static magnetic fields on pain perception and sympathetic nerve activity in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007;102:1410-1415. Available at jap.physiology.org/content/102/4/1410.long.
- Mayrovitz HN, Groseclose EE. Effects of a static magnetic field of either polarity on skin microcirculation. Microvasc Res. 2005;69:24-27.
- McLean M, Engstrom S, Holcomb R. Static magnetic fields for the treatment of pain. Epilepsy & Behavior. 2001;2:S74-S80.
- Pittler MH, Brown EM, Ernst E. Static magnets for reducing pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. CMAJ. 2007;177:736-742. Available at www.cmaj.ca/content/177/7/736.long.
- Colbert AP, Markov MS, Banerji M, Pill AA. Magnetic mattress pad use in patients with fibromyalgia: a randomized double-blind pilot study. J Back Musculoskeletal Rehab. 1999;13: 19-31.
- Lee PB, Kim YC, Lim YJ, et al. Efficacy of pulsed electromagnetic therapy for chronic lower back pain: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J Int Med Res. 2006;34:160-167. Available at imr.sagepub.com/content/34/2/160.long.
- Eccles NK. A randomized, double-blinded, placebo- controlled pilot study to investigate the effectiveness of a static magnet to relieve dysmenorrhea. J Altern Complement Med. 2005;11:681-687.
All electronic documents accessed January 15, 2014.
From the February 01, 2014 Issue of Clinical Advisor
Professional sceptics of alternative medicine got their comeuppance last week with the disclosure that magnet therapy, said to be favoured by Cherie Blair, was to be made available on the NHS. Magnets have been used as a remedy for centuries, and widely marketed in Britain for over a decade, but this was a seal of scientific approval.
You can buy a magnetic hairbrush said to stimulate hair growth, a magnetic mask to reduce wrinkles, magnetic insoles to boost energy, and magnetic jewellery to ward off arthritis. Some researchers claim to have shown that magnets can ease period pains, lift depression and cure aching joints. Separate studies at Harvard University, in the US, and the Peninsula Medical School, Plymouth, even found that wearing a magnetic sleeve eased the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee.
Magnets’ healing powers are said to have enthused Cleopatra, and current users are reported to include Bill Clinton and Sir Anthony Hopkins. But when the NHS includes a product in the Drug Tariff, you have to sit up and take notice. Since last week, a device called the 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – has been available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, the Bristol-based firm Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and prevents their recurrence.
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The announcement has created excitement in the world of alternative medicine. Every purveyor of magnetic devices has been pumping out press releases and advertisements, hoping to capitalise on the new development. Lilias Curtin, one-time therapist to Cherie Blair, sent a poster-sized announcement to newspapers last week declaring her “sincere belief that, in the next five to 10 years, magnets will be seen in first-aid boxes”. Kleshna, a maker of magnet jewellery, claimed in another release that magnets created “a whirlpool effect to the iron in our blood to get it pumping round much faster than usual”.
People may scoff at the idea that the lumps of metal used for sticking notes on to the fridge have healing properties, but, presumably, those who control the NHS purse know what they are paying for. And anyone who doubts that magnets have physical effects on the body need only try an experiment conducted at the Institute of Neurology in London. Ask Professor Tom Rothwell to wave a magnetic wand over the left side of your head, and watch your right arm jump involuntarily. The excitation of the neuronal pathways that this demonstrates suggests, according to Professor Rothwell, that the technique might be useful in the rehabilitation of stroke victims. A trial of transmagnetic stimulation of the brain in stroke-sufferers is soon to begin.
This does not prove that magnetic necklaces have medicinal effects. But after 10 years of making and selling magnetic devices such as the 4Ulcer-Care leg wrap, Derek Price, the 64-year-old founder of Magno-pulse, is convinced that they work. Having had initial success on his dog, Kiri, who suffered from arthritis; and then on his own arthritic ankle, Price sent the leg wraps to four local surgeries to be tried on patients. To his surprise, word came back that they were helping to heal ulcers. A trial was run on 28 patients in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridge by the London GP Nyjon Eccles, and the results published in the Journal of Wound Care in February 2005. A second telephone survey found that 211 of 289 patients who used the device had not had a recurrence of their ulcer for at least a year, Price says.
Whether this was what convinced the NHS Prescription Pricing Authority to include it in the Drug Tariff is hard to tell. No one was available from the authority to comment last week, and a spokesman for the Department of Health could throw no light on what evidence is required before a product can be included in the Drug Tariff. “It is for the GP to decide whether a listed product is suitable for the treatment of individual patients,” he said.
The leg-ulcer wrap is worn just below the knee, above the calf muscle. It does not come into direct contact with the ulcer, which is covered by its own dressing. It is believed that the magnets stimulate the circulation but it is not known how. Leg ulcers tend to occur in the elderly and those with poor circulation such as diabetics. Their treatment costs the NHS at least £300m a year. The cost to the NHS of the leg-ulcer wrap is £13.80 – about half the retail price of £29 – and Price claims that it could save £150m a year on conventional treatment and nurses’ time.
Other experts are sceptical. Professor Edzard Ernst, head of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that he was puzzled by the NHS decision. “As far as I can see, there hasn’t yet been enough research to prove that these magnets help people with ulcers. You need more than a study on 20-odd people to have a compelling case.”
More powerful electromagnets could help to heal tissue injuries, and are used in hospitals elsewhere in Europe, but that was different, he said. His own study of small magnets on arthritis sufferers had failed to yield compelling results. “There is a huge market out there and lots of money is being made, but the evidence is far from convincing.”
In January, researchers from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, in California, published a paper in the British Medical Journal that cast doubt on the therapeutic use of magnets. “Patients should be advised that magnet therapy has no proven benefits. If they insist on using a magnetic device, they could be advised to buy the cheapest – this will alleviate the pain in their wallet,” they wrote.
That could be good advice for the NHS.
Jeremy Laurance is health editor of ‘The Independent’
Magnets: do they really work?
* The origins of magnet therapy can be traced back to ancient Egypt, but they became popular in the West in the 1990s. Around five million Americans were using magnets in 2001.
* Magnets are said to help with arthritis, aches and pains, circulation problems, migraine, backache, period pain and sleep problems.
* Magnets used for therapy are the size of a 50p piece and eight-10 times stronger than fridge magnets.
* At the University of Virginia, in the US, researchers concluded that magnet therapy reduced the intensity of pain from fibromyalgia – a rheumatoid disorder – enough to be “clinically meaningful”.
* At Harvard University, patients with osteoarthritis were given magnetic “sleeves” for their knees, which they wore six hours a day for six weeks. The researchers found that the beneficial effects kicked in after four hours, with a sevenfold difference between those who had the magnetic sleeve and those who had a sham device.
* For a study at the University of Washington, researchers put a magnet on the shoulder of patients who had suffered chronic pain for years. After the magnet had been on the shoulder for one hour, pain levels halved.
* A study published in the British Medical Journal in January concluded that there was no evidence that magnet therapy worked, and warned magnet users that they were being exploited.
How Does Magnet Therapy Work?
- Some say that magnets have a positive effect on the electromagnetic energy body of the body, that more magnetic fields are needed in the body for it to heal.
- Magnets, they say, can increase the magnetic field and help you recover. More recent research have shown that magnets have an impact on ion channels which control pain signals, contraction of muscles and biological processes. Magnets work on these ion channels to block out nerve pain signals.
- The strength of a magnet is measured in gauss units and different areas of the body require varying gauss strength to be effective. For instance, a finger which does not have much tissue depth may not require strong magnetic fields but the back or hip will need more gauss strength for full penetration.
Benefits Of Magnetic Therapy
Using magnets for therapy is a non-invasive treatment and considered safe by practitioners. Magnetic healing therapy is said to penetrate deep muscle tissues quickly and bring down swelling, inflammation and pain. Magnetic therapy products may offer the same healing effects as ice and heat but act faster. They are commonly recommended for use on sports injuries and chronic pain conditions including tendonitis, wrist pain, chronic lower back pain, overuse syndrome and elbow pain. They are believed to also have a healing effect on fractures. Read more on the therapeutic benefits of magnets at Health Products For You.
Uses of Magnetic Therapy
Magnet therapy products are generally used in the treatment of:
- Headaches, especially migraines
- Mild-to-moderate pain after surgery
- Long-term chronic pain
- Injuries to muscles, ligaments and tendons
- Strains and sprains
A Word of Caution
Magnetic healing therapy should not be used on young children, pregnant women and on open wounds. Those with metal implants, a pacemaker or using an insulin pump should not use magnetic therapy products because the magnetic fields can interfere with the functioning of these devices.
Magnetic Therapy Products
- There are several magnetic therapy products that you may find effective. There are magnetic bracelets, magnetic head bands, magnetic eye masks and magnetic pads for pain.
- Magnetic mattress pads are said to improve the quality of sleep, soothing out aches and pains, getting rid of all stress and promoting deep sleep.
- There are magnetic therapy seat cushions that use 600 gauss magnetic strength to promote blood circulation and provide relief from aches and stiffness in the back and legs. Being lightweight, these cushions can easily be carried around.
- Magnetic supports for the wrist, knee, elbow, ankle, head, neck, etc., provide effective magnetic therapy to relieve stress, pain and discomfort.
- There are magnet neck collars which improve circulation and speed up healing with seven BMMI concentric circle magnets. BMMI magnets are for human medical use. These are concentric circles with unique magnetic field configuration ensuring that optimum magnetic field is applied to the affected area. Concentric circle magnetic fields allow the blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow. They also bring down swelling. When placed over the eye, this magnet can relax the mind, reduce stress, sinus problems and headaches.
- For foot/ankle and thumb pain there are supports made of neoprene; for the hand and wrist there are mitts with nine BMMI concentric circle magnets.
- Magnetic head bands are considered suitable for headaches and stress.
Other Useful Links:
- Physical Activity, Exercise, and Physical Fitness
- Efficacy of Thermotherapy and Cryotherapy on Pain Relief