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Magnet Therapy

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

During the past few years, magnetic devices have been claimed to relieve pain and to have therapeutic value against a large number of diseases and conditions. The way to evaluate such claims is to ask whether scientific studies have been published. Pulsed electromagnetic fields -- which induce measurable electric fields -- have been demonstrated effective for treating slow-healing fractures and have shown promise for a few other conditions. However, few studies have been published on the effect on pain of small, static magnets marketed to consumers [1]. Explanations that magnetic fields "increase circulation," "reduce inflammation," or "speed recovery from injuries" are simplistic and are not supported by the weight of experimental evidence [2].

The main basis for the claims is a double-blind test study, conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, which comparedg the effects of magnets and sham magnets on knee pain. The study involved 50 adult patients with pain related to having been infected with the polio virus when they were children. A static magnetic device or a placebo device was applied to the patient's skin for 45 minutes. The patients were asked to rate how much pain they experienced when a "trigger point was touched." The researchers reported that the 29 patients exposed to the magnetic device achieved lower pain scores than did the 21 who were exposed to the placebo device [3} Although this study is cited by nearly everyone selling magnets, it provides no legitimate basis for concluding that magnets offer any health-related benefit:

Two better-designed, longer-lasting pain studies have been negative:

Legal and Regulatory Actions

In 1998, Magnetherapy, Inc., of West Palm Beach, Florida, signed an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with the State of Texas to pay a $30,000 penalty and to stop claiming that wearing its magnetic device near areas of pain and inflammation will relieve pain due to arthritis, migraine headaches, sciatica or heel spurs. The agreement also requires Magnetherapy to stop making claims that its magnets can cure, treat, or mitigate any disease or can affect any change in the human body, unless its devices are FDA-approved for those purposes [6]. Ads for the company's Tectonic Magnets had featured testimonials from athletes, including golfers from the senior pro tours. Various ads had claimed that Tectonic Magnets would provide symptomatic relief from certain painful conditions and could restore range of motion to muscles and joints. The company had provided retailers with display packages that included health claims, written testimonials, and posters of sports stars. Texas Attorney General Dan Morales stated that some claims were false or unsubstantiated and others had rendered the product unapproved medical devices under Texas law. In 1997, the FDA had warned Magnetherapy to stop claiming that its products would relieve arthritis; tennis elbow; low back pain; sciatica; migraine headache; muscle soreness; neck, knee, ankle, and shoulder pain; heel spurs; bunions; arthritic fingers and toes; and could reduce pain and inflammation in the affected areas by increasing blood and oxygen flow [7].

In 1999, the FTC obtained a consent agreement barring two companies from making unsubstantiated claims about their magnetic products. Magnetic Therapeutic Technologies, of Irving, Texas, is barred from claiming that its magnetic sleep pads or other products: (a) are effective against cancers, diabetic ulcers, arthritis, degenerative joint conditions, or high blood pressure; (b) could stabilize or increase the T-cell count of HIV patients; (c) could reduce muscle spasms in persons with multiple sclerosis; (d) could reduce nerve spasms associated with diabetic neuropathy; (e) could increase bone density, immunity, or circulation; or (f) are comparable or superior to prescription pain medicine. Pain Stops Here! Inc., of Baiting Hollow, N.Y., may no longer claim that its "magnetized water" or other products are useful against cancer, diseases of the liver or other internal organs, gallstones, kidney stones, urinary infection, gastric ulcers, dysentery, diarrhea, skin ulcers, bed sores, arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, sprains, strains, sciatica, heart disease, circulatory disease, arthritis, auto-immune illness, neuro-degenerative disease, and allergies, and could stimulate the growth of plants.

On August 8, 2000, the Consumer Justice Center, of Laguna Niguel, California filed suit in Orange County Superior Court charging that Florsheim and a local shoe store (Shoe Emporium) made false and fraudulent claims that their MagneForce shoes (a) correct "magnetic deficiency," (b) "generate a deep-penetrating magnetic field which increases blood circulation; reduces leg and back fatigue; and provides natural pain relief and improved energy level."; and (c) their claims are established and proven by scientific studies [8]. A few days after this suit was filed, Florsheim removed the disputed ad from its Web site.

The Bottom Line

There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today's products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin's surface.

References

  1. Livingston JD. Magnetic therapy: Plausible attraction. Skeptical Inquirer 25-30, 58, 1998.
  2. Ramey DW. Magnetic and electromagnetic therapy. Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 2(1):13-19, 1998.
  3. Vallbona C, Hazelwood CF, Jurida G. Response of pain to static magnetic fields in postpolio patients: A double-blind pilot study. Archives of Physical and Rehabilitative Medicine 78:1200-1203, 1997.
  4. Caselli MA and others. Evaluation of magnetic foil and PPT Insoles in the treatment of heel pain. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association 87:11-16, 1997.
  5. Collacott EA and others. Bipolar permanent magnets for the treatment of chronic low back pain. JAMA 283:1322-1325, 2000.
  6. Morales halts unproven claims for magnet therapy. News release, April 9, 1998.
  7. Gill LJ. Letter to William L. Roper, Feb 3, 1997.
  8. Jeff Wynton and the Consumer Justice Center v. Florsheim Group, Inc., Shoe Emporium. Superior Court of California, Orange County, Case #00CC09419, filed Aug 8, 2000.

Reader Response

From David Gessell, a design engineer from Oakland, California:

I recently was introduced to the bizarre concept that magnetic insoles can promote health and relieve pain. The seller promised improved circulation, reduced pain, better oxygen uptake, weight loss, and more or less any other positive benefit that could be imagined or requested. The mechanism presented was: Humans evolved (or were created, for those residents of Kansas) in the presence of the Earth's magnetic fields. These fields are blocked by concrete and pavement and other human structures. In the supposed absence of these fields the body in some way suffers. A friend had purchased magnetic insoles at an approximate cost of $100. She returned them after I explained that:

  • Magnetic fields are not blocked by concrete (unless it is steel-reinforced). Any place a compass works, the earth's magnetic fields are present.
  • Blood is not magnetic. If it were, one's body would explode in an MRI machine.
  • DC magnetic fields have no known effect at on the human body at levels strong enough to bend steel bars as commonly experienced by magnet and fusion researchers. These individuals are exposed to magnetic field strengths 6 to 10 orders of magnitude greater than that created by the rubberized magnetic insoles, without becoming either more or less healthful.
 
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This article was revised on April 26, 2001.