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Magnet therapies have become increasingly popular in recent years, chiefly for the treatment of pain. They have been offered as an inexpensive pain-reliever without side effects. Magnets are purported to be particularly effective for wear-and-tear conditions that involve both pain and inflammation, a common problem among the middle-aged and elderly. Long popular in Japan, magnet therapy has recently entered public awareness in the United States, stimulated by golfers and tennis players extolling the virtues of magnets in the treatment of sports-related injuries.
Despite this enthusiasm, as yet there is little scientific evidence to support the use of magnets for any medical condition. However, several small studies completed in the last few years suggest that magnets may indeed have a genuine therapeutic use in certain conditions. More studies are underway
What Is Magnet Therapy?
The term "magnet therapy" usually refers to the use of static magnets placed directly on the body, usually over regions of pain. Static magnets are either attached to the body by tape or encapsulated in specially designed products such as belts, wraps, or mattress pads. Static magnets are also sometimes known as permanent magnets. There are two types of static magnets: so-called unipolar magnets, and alternating-pole magnets. (These are defined in the section entitled How to Use Magnet Therapy.)
Various types of electromagnetic devices have also been studied, not for home use, but for use in physicians' offices and in hospitals. Electromagnetic therapy has been used to treat nonhealing fractures since the 1970s and is being investigated experimentally for osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, migraine, multiple sclerosis, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Magnet therapy has a long history in traditional folk medicine. Reliable documentation tells us that Chinese doctors believed in the therapeutic value of magnets at least 2,000 years ago, and probably earlier than that. The Chinese used magnets to treat many ailments including fevers, arthritis, wounds, and pain from injuries, and also to improve eyesight. There is also evidence—somewhat less reliable—to support the use of magnets by the ancient Egyptians and other African peoples.
In sixteenth-century Europe, Paracelsus used magnets to treat a variety of ailments. Two centuries later, Mesmer became famous for treating various disorders with magnets. Although he was later discredited as a charlatan, Mesmer's ideas about the relationship between the mind and the body contributed to the development of psychology. Just as Mesmer's insights into the role the mind plays in illness were ahead of his time, so too, did his work with magnets foreshadow contemporary use.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, scientists in various parts of the world began performing studies on the therapeutic use of magnets. Most of this work took place in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where funding was readily available. However, this research was not up to modern scientific standards, and cannot be taken as proof that magnets really work.
From the 1940s on, magnets became increasingly popular in Japan. Yushio Manaka, one of the influential Japanese acupuncturists of the twentieth century, used magnets in conjunction with acupuncture. Magnets also became a commonly used technique of self-administered medicine in Japan: A type of plaster containing a small magnet became popular for treating aches and pains, especially among the elderly. Magnetic mattress pads, bracelets, and necklaces also became popular—again, mainly among the elderly.
During the 1970s, both magnets and electromagnetic machines became popular among athletes in many countries for treating sports-related injuries. By the late 1990s, many American athletes went public in their affirmation of the therapeutic value of magnets. It became commonplace to see a golfer wearing a magnetic wrist wrap, and tennis stars spoke of sleeping on magnetic mattress pads while playing big tournaments. Veterinarians found that magnets were useful for treating injuries in animals and that sleeping on a magnetic pad appeared to ease arthritis in dogs.
These developments led to a rapidly growing industry creating magnetic products ranging from the apparently practical (such as the thermal magnetic wrist wrap) to the bizarre (magnetic devices marketed as sexual aids). However, the development of this industry preceded any reliable scientific evidence that static magnets actually work for the purposes intended. It was only in 1997 that properly designed clinical trials of magnets in the United States began to be reported. Subsequently, results of several preliminary studies (detailed in the Scientific Evidence section) suggest that both static magnets and electromagnetic therapy may indeed offer therapeutic benefits for several disorders. These findings have served to escalate research interest in magnet therapy.
Therapeutic Uses of Magnet Therapy
Magnet therapy is primarily used today as a treatment for pain and inflammation—for conditions such as back and neck pain, tendinitis, and arthritis. Magnet therapy has also been tried for wound healing after plastic surgery, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, and the insomnia, fatigue, and pain of fibromyalgia.
In addition, it has been suggested as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, edema, scar tissue, menstrual pain, and chronic pelvic pain. However, evidence that magnet therapy helps in any of these conditions is still highly preliminary.
The FDA approved electromagnetic therapy in 1978 for the treatment of nonhealing fractures. In addition, electromagnetic therapy is now being tried experimentally as a treatment for osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, and multiple sclerosis.
A special form of electromagnetic therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), is being used experimentally in many countries. rTMS is designed specifically to treat the brain with low-frequency magnetic pulses. Recent studies suggest that rTMS might be beneficial for epilepsy, depression, and schizophrenia. It is also being studied for the treatment of Parkinson's disease and obsessive-compulsive disorder
How Might Magnet Therapy Work?
It is not yet known how magnets affect the body. A commonly held misconception is that magnets attract the iron in the blood, thus moving the blood and stimulating circulation. Because iron in the blood is bound to hemoglobin, it is not free to respond to a magnet. So what do magnets affect? The most commonly held theory is that magnets affect the cell membrane. According to Dr. Arthur Pilla, a biophysicist who has spent the past 30 years studying this question, "The biophysical community is pretty convinced at this point that the cell membrane or other internal cell surfaces that form electrified interfaces with the body fluids in which they are bathing are the target for magnetic stimuli."1 Via this mechanism, magnets may affect calcium binding, may influence cell water and accompanying cell biochemistry, and possibly stimulate ion exchange at the cell wall. Other related theories suggest that magnets stimulate the release of endorphins, or introduce a low-amperage current that has a healing action, or somehow balance the electromagnetic field of the body.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Magnet Therapy?
Scientific research into magnets is in its infancy. Since 1997, there has been an increase in studies undertaken on both static magnetic and electromagnetic therapies. However, though intriguing, all of these studies have been too small to provide firm proof that magnet therapy really works.
Research on static magnets has focused on their use to relieve pain. Six studies have been completed: four showing some positive result, and two showing no significant result.
A double-blind placebo-controlled study of 50 individuals with post-polio syndrome found evidence that magnets are effective for relieving pain. The magnets were placed on previously determined trigger points (one per person) for 45 minutes. (Trigger points are sore areas within muscle that, when pressed, cause relief in other areas of the muscle, and conversely, when inflamed, cause pain in other parts of the muscle.) In the treatment group, 76% of the participants reported improvement, compared to 19% in the placebo group.
A double-blind placebo-controlled study of 30 women with fibromyalgia found significant improvement with magnets compared to placebo. The women slept on magnetic mattress pads (or sham pads for the control group) every night for 4 months. Of the 25 women who completed the trial, participants sleeping on the experimental mattress pad experienced a significant decrease in pain and fatigue compared to the placebo group, along with significant improvement in sleep and physical functioning. The researchers also checked for side effects, and found none during the trial period.
A 4-month double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of 19 individuals with peripheral neuropathy found a significant reduction in symptoms compared to placebo. Participants wore magnetic foot insoles during the day throughout the trial period. Reduction in the symptoms of burning, numbness, and tingling were especially marked in those cases of neuropathy associated with diabetes. The researchers speculated that the magnetic insoles had greater effect in cases of severe nerve damage.
Wound Healing after Plastic Surgery
A double-blind placebo-controlled study looked at the effect of magnets on healing after plastic surgery. The study examined the use of magnets on 20 patients who had had suction lipectomy (commonly known as liposuction). Magnets contained in patches were placed over the operative region immediately after surgery, and left in place for 14 days. The treatment group experienced statistically significant reduction of pain and swelling on postoperative days 1 through 4, and in discoloration on days 1 through 3, as compared with the control group.
Low Back Pain
A double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study used alternating-pole magnets (defined in section on How to Use Magnet Therapy) on 20 individuals who had chronic low back pain for at least 6 months duration; the average length of time the participants had suffered with back pain was 19 years. The study found no improvement relative to the placebo group.
However, as the researchers themselves point out, "A stronger magnet may be necessary to penetrate to the source of chronic low back pain."
A double-blind placebo-controlled study of 14 women with chronic pelvic pain found no significant benefit when magnets were applied to abdominal trigger points for 2 weeks. However, statistical analysis showed that a larger study would have been necessary to show whether magnet therapy was effective.
Electromagnetic therapy is used in two main ways: via pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).
Studies on Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)
PEMF has been found to produce statistically significant benefits in non-union fractures and osteoarthritis. One study looked at the effects of PEMF on multiple sclerosis and found some evidence of benefit.
Non-Union Fractures Although bone has a remarkable capacity to heal from injury, in some cases the broken ends do not join: these are called non-union fractures.
Electromagnetic coil therapy has been used to stimulate bone repair in non-union and other fractures since the 1970s.
Animal studies in the early 1970s showed promising results using pulsed electromagnetic fields. A study on rabbits found that when these fields were applied to a fracture of the leg, the fracture healed in significantly less time than in the control group. The same research team, this time using pulsed electromagnetic fields on 41 beagles with fibular osteotomies, also found a significant decrease in repair time. These positive results in animals led to more research on human beings.
By 1978, a 5-year study had completed the results of 108 cases of non-union fractures in humans, including individuals with congenital non-unions (pseudoarthroses) as well as those caused by trauma. The study reported that functional union was attained in 87 individuals, a success rate of nearly 81%.
Two double-blind placebo-controlled studies enrolling a total of 194 individuals suggest that pulsed electromagnetic field therapy can improve symptoms of osteoarthritis.
In one of these studies, 27 individuals with osteoarthritis (mostly of the knee) found that pulsed electromagnetic field therapy could improve pain and mobility. Participants received 18 half-hour sessions of PEMF over the course of a month, from a specially designed noncontact air-coil device. The control group received treatment with a sham device. According to several criteria, treated participants experienced statistically significant improvement as compared to the placebo group, had less pain, and showed improved functional performance of the affected areas. No side effects were observed.
Another study conducted by the same team the following year found similar results in 86 individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee and 81 with osteoarthritis of the cervical spine. Receiving the same 18 half-hour sessions with either the PEMF or sham device, the treated participants with OA of the knee averaged a 29 to 36% improvement in pain and mobility by the end of treatment, while the placebo group averaged 11 to 19% improvement. In the group suffering from OA of the spine, improvement in the treatment group averaged 30 to 35% at the end of treatment, again superior to placebo. For both OA conditions, benefits lasted for at least a month after treatment was stopped.
A 2-month double-blind placebo-controlled study of 30 individuals with multiple sclerosis was conducted using a PEMF device. Participants were instructed to tape the device to one of three different acupuncture points on the shoulder, back, or hip. The study found statistically significant improvements in the treatment group, most notably in bladder control, hand function, and spasticity.
Many women experience stress incontinence, the leakage of urine following any action that puts pressure on the bladder. Laughter, physical exercise, and coughing can all trigger this unpleasant occurrence.
Standard treatment for stress incontinence includes pelvic floor exercises (such as Kegel exercises) and surgery. Techniques that electrically stimulate the muscles of the pelvic floor have also been tried, but this treatment is uncomfortable and seldom used.
A recent study suggests that pulse electromagnetic stimulation might be another option. It is potentially more comfortable than electric stimulation, although it is thought to work in much the same way.
In this placebo-controlled study, researchers applied high-intensity pulsating magnetic fields to 62 women with stress incontinence. The intention was to stimulate the nerves that control the pelvic muscles.
The results showed that one session of magnetic stimulation significantly reduced episodes of urinary leakage over the following week, as compared to placebo. In the treated group, 74% experienced significant improvement as compared to only 32% in the placebo group.
Presumably, the high-intensity magnetic field used in this treatment created electrical currents in the pelvic muscles and nerves. This was confirmed by objective examination of 13 patients, which found that magnetic stimulation was in fact increasing the closure pressure on the bladder.
However, there was one serious flaw in this study: it does not appear to have been double-blind. Researchers apparently knew which participants were getting real treatment and which were not, and therefore might have unconsciously biased their observations to conform to their expectations. Thus, the promise of electromagnetic therapy for stress incontinence still needs to be validated in properly designed trials.
In a double-blind trial, 42 individuals with migraine headaches were given treatment with real or placebo pulsed electromagnetic therapy to the inner thighs for 1 hour, 5 times per week for 2 weeks. The results showed benefits in headache frequency and severity. However, the study design was rather convoluted and nonstandard, and therefore difficult to interpret.
Studies on Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) has been investigated for treating illnesses originating in the brain. The results of preliminary studies have been generally promising.
Several studies have looked at the use of rTMS for treating depression. Though preliminary, the generally positive results in these studies have encouraged further research.
In one of the best of these studies, 70 individuals with major depression were given rTMS or sham rTMS in a double-blind setting over a period of 2 weeks.25 A magnetic stimulator was placed over the right prefrontal area of the brain, a location some researchers believe plays a major role in depression. True rTMS consisted of a train of 60 pulses delivered for 1 minute, followed by a 3-minute rest period and then another train of 60 pulses. Ten sessions were given over the 2-week study period. The results showed that participants who had received actual treatment experienced significantly greater improvement than did those receiving sham treatment.
Another study evaluated the effects of rTMS in 20 individuals whose depression did not respond to standard therapy (so-called treatment-resistant depression), and also found benefits. This suggests that rTMS might be an option for the 20 to 30% of depressed individuals for whom conventional drug therapy is not successful.
An open pilot study looked into the use of rTMS in the treatment of intractable epilepsy (in which seizures cannot be fully controlled by medication). The study investigated the effects of low-frequency rTMS (0.33 Hz) in nine individuals who experienced frequent seizures, more than seven per week on average. Each rTMS session consisted of 2 trains of 500 pulses from a round coil placed over the vertex (crown of the head), and treatment was given for 5 consecutive days. In the 4 weeks following treatment, eight of the nine participants reported an improvement in number and/or severity of seizures; for three individuals, the number of seizures was cut by 50%. Unfortunately, this apparent beneficial effect was not long lasting: after 6 to 8 weeks, all participants were experiencing pretreatment levels of seizure activity.
A double-blind placebo-controlled crossover trial looked at the use of low-frequency rTMS in 12 individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and manifesting frequent and treatment-resistant auditory hallucinations (hearing voices). All participants were on antipsychotic medication that was continued during the trial, and had suffered from daily auditory hallucinations for at least 6 months immediately prior to the study. Participants received 1-Hz rTMS to the left temporoparietal cortex for 4 days, with length of treatment building from 4 minutes on the first day to 16 on the fourth day. Trials of active versus sham stimulation took place on separate weeks with 2 to 3 days between the trials. Active stimulation significantly reduced the incidence of auditory hallucinations compared to sham stimulation. The extent of the benefit varied widely, lasting from 1 day in one participant to 2 months in another. Possible benefits were seen in another study of individuals with schizophrenia.
A double-blind placebo-controlled study of 18 individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder found no evidence of benefit with rTMS.
Other Forms of Magnet Therapy
Hydrofloss, a company manufacturing oral irrigators, commissioned research on an oral irrigator incorporating magnetized water (water that had passed over a magnet before entering the device). The company was inspired to produce and research the irrigation device after reading about Russian industrial use of magnetized water.
A double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of 29 individuals, conducted in 1998 at the Medical University of South Carolina’s periodontics division, found that the group using the active device had significantly less calculus formed on their teeth by the end of the trial, as compared with the control group. There was no statistically significant change in either plaque buildup or gingival health. The researchers concluded that the device might be beneficial to people who are prone to heavy calculus deposits on their teeth.
How to Use Magnet Therapy
The following is a brief description of the use of magnet therapy. However, keep in mind that the current ways that magnets are used have yet to be fully evaluated by long-term clinical testing.
A full medical evaluation is advisable before using magnets. You don't want to be treating a painful back with magnets if the underlying cause of pain is a fracture or tumor! Other concerns are discussed in the Safety Issues section.
If you have decided you do wish to try magnet therapy, you will have to choose among many different types of magnets and magnetic devices on the market today. There are a number of theories on the size and type of magnet to use and where to apply them, based on the type of condition being treated and other factors. For this purpose, it may be beneficial to consult a practitioner who is experienced with the use of magnet therapy.
Magnets come in different strengths. The units of measuring magnet strength are gauss and tesla. One tesla equals 10,000 gauss. A refrigerator magnet, for example, is around 200 gauss. Therapeutic magnets measure anywhere from 200 to 10,000 gauss, but the most commonly used therapeutic magnets measure 400 to 800 gauss.
Therapeutic magnets come in two different types of polarity arrangement: unipolar magnets and alternating-pole devices. Magnets that have north on one side and south on the other are known, rather confusingly, as unipolar magnets. Bipolar or alternating-pole magnets are made from a sheet of magnetic material with north and south magnets arranged in an alternating pattern, so that both north and south face the skin. This type of magnet exerts a weaker magnetic field, because the alternative magnets tend to oppose each other. Each type of magnet has its own recommended uses and enthusiasts. (There are many heated opinions—with no supporting evidence—on this matter.)
Based on the theory that unipolar magnets have greater depth of penetration, some researchers consider that these are more effective in treating deeper tissues. Conversely, it is considered that alternating-pole magnet devices might be more effective at stimulating surface tissue. Thus, these researchers would recommend using a unipolar high-gauss magnet for low back pain that originates deep in the tissue, and an alternating-pole configuration for an injury closer to the surface, such as a wrist sprain.
In addition, some practitioners hold that the north side of the magnet calms and the south side excites, and that using the correct side of the magnet is crucial. However, biophysicists in general maintain that there is no difference between the two poles of the magnet in terms of the effect upon body tissue.
There is general consensus, at least, that the magnet should be placed as close to the affected part of the body as possible. This can be done by taping the magnet to the skin, slipping the magnet inside a bandage over the affected area, or by using a wrap device that has magnets embedded within it. Some practitioners favor the use of magnets on trigger points (sore areas that are related by nerves to the affected area; 70% of trigger points coincide with acupuncture points). Acupuncturists sometimes use small high-gauss magnets placed on acupuncture points as an alternative to inserting needles, usually with the north side facing the skin.
Tape holding magnets to the body might irritate the skin, and some research scientists and practitioners suspect that the body may accommodate to the magnetic field over time, thus reducing the therapeutic effect. In order to prevent both the irritation and the accommodation, practitioners usually recommend intermittent use, such as 5 days on, 2 days off, or 12 hours on, 12 hours off.
Manufacturers make a wide range of magnetic devices. For treating large areas of the body, wraps and belts containing magnets are available. Wraps are specifically designed for the wrist, elbow, knee, ankle, neck, shoulder, and back, often made out of thermal material to have the added effect of warming the affected area. These wraps are often recommended in cases of injury and arthritis where heat feels better.
Proponents of magnet therapy often recommend the use of magnetic mattress pads and mattresses for people with problems affecting several areas of the body, such as fibromyalgia or arthritis; they also recommend mattress pads for insomnia and fatigue.
Proponents of magnet therapy recommend magnetic foot insoles for people with diabetic peripheral neuropathy, leg aches and pains, circulatory problems of the lower extremities, foot injuries and problems, and for people who stand all day.
Magnetic necklaces are said to be useful for neck and shoulder pain as well as for generalized aches and pains, and magnetic bracelets for wrist pain and general problems. However, magnet researchers suspect that these magnetic devices cannot possibly work as intended because they do not sit firmly enough on the body to emit a consistent and therapeutically viable level of magnetic field.
Products that purportedly alter water magnetically are available. These are attached to water pipes—you can also simply tape a magnet to the water pipe beneath the sink and probably produce the same effect, if any. As mentioned earlier, one scientific study did find that water treated in this way caused less calculus buildup on teeth.
In general, magnets appear to be safe. MRI machines, for example, expose the body to gigantic magnetic fields, and extensive investigation has found no evidence of harm. However, during the MRI, the patient is subjected to a high level of magnetism for a short period of time, whereas people who use static magnets daily, or sleep on them every night, are subjected to a low level of magnetism over a long period of time. So far, it is not known whether this type of exposure has any deleterious effects. One study, in which participants slept on a magnetic mattress pad every night for 4 months, found no side effects. In addition, a safety study of rTMS found no evidence of harm.
There are anecdotal reports of a small percentage of users who find magnetic devices to be irritating. In such cases, users say they experience a sense of discomfort.
It was previously thought that people with implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) and pacemakers should not use magnetic devices at all, but this recommendation has been adjusted. One study found that with the exception of magnetic mattresses and mattress pads, most magnets sold for therapeutic purposes do not interfere with the magnetically activated switches present in most pacemakers. Magnetic mattress pads can deactivate and alter the function of ICDs and pacemakers, but other therapeutic magnets are safe if kept 6 inches or further from these devices.
There are theoretical concerns that magnets might be risky for individuals with epilepsy. Similarly, until the physiological effects of magnet treatments are better understood, pregnant women should avoid them.
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