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magnet therapy

"I know of no scientist who takes this claim seriously...It's another fad. They come and go like copper bracelets and crystals and all of these things, and this one will pass too." --Robert Park of the American Physical Society.

"Iron atoms in a magnet are crammed together in a solid state about one atom apart from one another. In your blood only four iron atoms are allocated to each hemoglobin molecule, and they are separated by distances too great to form a magnet [magnetic domain?]. This is easily tested by pricking your finger and placing a drop of your blood next to a magnet." --Michael Shermer*

"The more extreme claims of magnetic therapy, such as curing cancer by hanging supermagnets around your neck, are not only nonsense but also dangerous, since they may divert patients from seeking appropriate treatment from mainstream medicine. Magnetic jewelry and most other magnetic-therapy products probably are harmless beyond a waste of money." --James D. Livingston*

Magnet therapy is a type of "alternative" medicine which claims that magnetic fields have healing powers. Magnetic cures have been attracting gullible patrons for centuries (Mackay: Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds). For example, in the early 1770s, Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician met a Jesuit priest and healer with the unlikely name of Maximillian Hell. Fr. Hell claimed that he cured people with a magnetic steel plate. He knew this therapy worked because he had many satisfied customers. Mesmer plagiarized Hell's magnetic therapy and posited that it works because there is a very subtle magnetic fluid flowing through everything but which sometimes gets disturbed and needs to be restored to its proper flow. Hell, Mesmer theorized, was unblocking the flow of this magnetic fluid with his magnets. Mesmer eventually discovered that he got the same results without the magnets.

More than two hundred years later, we still find extraordinary claims being made about magnetic healing. Some claim that magnets can help broken bones heal faster or wine taste better, but most of the advocacy today comes from those who claim that magnets relieve pain. The support for this notion is mainly in the form of testimonials and anecdotes, and can be attributed to "placebo effects and other effects accompanying their use" (Livingston 1998). There is almost no scientific evidence supporting magnet therapy, though the occasional positive study does exist, e.g., "Randomised controlled trial of magnetic bracelets for relieving pain in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee" ("British Medical Journal, Dec. 2004). This was a small study (194 subjects over 12 weeks) that found a slightly higher decrease in pain from osteoarthritis of the hip and knee in the group wearing magnetic bracelets as opposed to a "dummy group". The authors noted: "It is uncertain whether this response is due to specific or non-specific (placebo) effects." The reason they could not be certain that the magnets were responsible for anything is that it is very difficult "to blind subjects to the presence of a magnet" (Finegold and Flamm 2006).

Of course, a single scientific study here or there that supports or fails to support a hypothesis should rarely be taken as conclusive. Many of these studies involve complex statistical analyses and due to such things as the small number of participants, the experimenter effect, and variables that are difficult to measure or control, the reasonable thing to do is wait for a consensus from numerous studies before making up your mind about such things as the effectiveness of magnets (or vitamins, etc.) on health. The fact is that there have been very few scientific studies on magnetic healing and the evidence supporting many of the extravagant claims for such healing is not very strong.

One highly publicized double-blind study was done at Baylor College of Medicine. This study compared the effects of magnets and sham magnets on the knee pain of 50 post-polio patients. The experimental group reported a significantly greater reduction in pain than the control group. No replication of the study has yet been done. (See James Livingston's comments on this study.)

A less publicized study at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine found that magnets did not have any effect on healing heel pain. Over a 4-week period, 19 patients wore a molded insole containing a magnetic foil, while 15 patients wore the same type of insole with no magnetic foil. In both groups, 60% reported improvement. In 1982, C. Z. Hong et al. found that magnetic necklaces produced no relief of neck or shoulder pain. In 2002, a small study (30 subjects) found that the use of a magnet for reducing pain attributed to carpal tunnel syndrome was no more effective than use of the placebo device.*  Another study found no effect using magnets to treat back pain (Collacott et al. 2000). A study out of the University of Virginia that tested magnets on sufferers of fibromyalgia found little reason to be enthusiastic about such treatment.* A review of the world-wide scientific literature regarding magnet therapy found that "the scientific evidence to support the success of this therapy is lacking. More scientifically sound studies are needed in order to fully understand the effects that magnets can have on the body and the possible benefits or dangers that could result from their use" (Ratterman et al. 2002).

Despite the fact that there has been very little scientific testing of magnet therapy, a growing industry is producing magnetic bracelets, bands, insoles, back braces, mattresses, etc., and claiming miraculous powers for their products. The magnet market may be approaching $150 million annually (Collie). (Lerner claims that U.S. sales are near the half billion mark and that world-wide magnetic therapy is bringing in nearly twice as much.)  Magnets are becoming the gimmick of choice of chiropractors and other "pain specialists." Former potter Marlynn Chetkof sells Russell Biomagnetic products and advises that magnets are better than painkillers or living with pain (Collie). Even a bankrupt building contractor, Rick Jones, is trying to cash in on the current magnet craze. He has formed a company called Optimum Health Technologies, Inc. to market his "Magnassager," a hand-held vibrator with magnets retailing for $489. Jones claims his invention "isn't just another massage device." He says it uses an electromagnetic field to help circulate blood while it's massaging the muscles. Jones raised $300,000 from investors and spent it all on "product development and marketing." Not a cent was spent on scientific testing of the device before bringing it to market, though he did give $20,000 to a physiologist to evaluate his device "to make sure that it was not gimmicky" (Kasler).

The claim that magnets help "circulate blood" is a common one among supporters of magnet therapy, but there is no scientific evidence that magnets do anything to the blood. Even though the evidence is lacking that magnets have anything other than a placebo effect, theories abound as to how they work. Some say magnets are like a shiatsu massage; some claim magnets affect the iron in red blood cells; still others claim that magnets create an alkaline reaction in the body (Collie). Bill Roper, head of Magnetherapy claims that "Magnets don't cure or heal anything. All they do is set your body back to normal so the healing process can begin" (Collie). How he knows this is not clear.

Some supporters of magnetic therapy seem to base their belief on a metaphysical assumption that all illness is due to some sort of imbalance or disharmony in energy. The balance or flow of electromagnetic energy must be restored to restore health, and magnets are thought to be able to do this.

Some of the most rabid advocates of magnet therapy are professional athletes such as Jim Colbert and John Huston (golfers), Dan Marino (football) and Lindsay Davenport (tennis). Their beliefs are based on little more than post hoc reasoning. It is possible that the relief a magnetic belt gives to a golfer with a back problem, however, is not simply a function of the placebo effect or the regressive fallacy. It may well be due to the support or added heat the belt provides. The product might work just as well without the magnets. However, athletes are not given to scientific testing any more than are the manufacturers of magnetic gimmickry.

Athletes aren't the only ones enamored of the power of magnets to heal. Dr. Richard Rogachefsky, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Miami, claims to have used magnets on about 600 patients, including people who have been shot. He says that the magnets "accelerate the healing process." His evidence? He can tell by looking at X-rays. Dr. William Jarvis is skeptical. He says that "Any doctor who relies on clinical impressions, on what they think they see, is a fool" (Collie). There is a good reason scientists do controlled double-blind studies to test causal efficacy: to prevent self-deception.

There is no scientific evidence that magnetizing your water, coffee, wine, fuel, etc. does anyone any good, except for improving the wealth of those hawking these products (Barrett 1998). One such product is said to do such amazing things as "re-vitalize hot or cold liquids," making them taste better and helping improve digestion by helping you better absorb nutrients. We are told that this product is used to prevent kidney and gallbladder stones. No doubt some people do use it for these reasons, but with what effect? We can only guess because no studies have been done to test these extravagant claims.

We should note that Dr. Mark S. George, an associate professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, did a controlled experiment on the use of magnets to treat depression. He only studied twelve patients for two weeks, however, so his results are of little significance. But further work in this area seems to support Dr. George's contention that magnetic pulses may help some patients with severe depression. However, the types of magnet therapy for pain that are described above have nothing in common with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS): using strong magnetic pulses to treat depression.

At present, we have no good reason to believe that static magnets have any more healing power than crystals or copper bracelets. As the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine states: "Overall, the research findings so far do not firmly support claims that magnets are effective for treatment of pain."*

See also pragmatic fallacy.

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further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Bauer, Henry H. (2004). Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies. University of Illinois Press.

Collie, Ashley Jude. "Let the Force Be With You," American Way, March 15, 1999.

Franklin, Benjamin and Antoine Lavoisier. "Report of the Commissioners Charged by the King to Examine Animal Magnetism" (reprinted in an English translation in Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 3 and in The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience). The report was instituted by French king Louis XVI in 1784.

Hong, C. Z. et al. (1982). Magnetic necklace: Its therapeutic effectiveness on neck and shoulder pain. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 63:162-164.

Jerabek Jiri and William Pawluk. (1998). Magnetic Therapy In Eastern Europe: A Review of 30 Years of Research. (self-published)

Kasler, Dale. "Inside Business,"  Sacramento Bee, June 29, 1998.

Livingston, James D. "Magnetic Therapy: Plausible Attraction?" Skeptical Inquirer (July/August1998).

Livingston, James D. Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard University Press, 1997).

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (Crown Publishing, 1995).

websites

Magnet study contradicts "increased circulation" claim - Quackwatch newsletter 9/17/2002

Magnet Therapy by Dr. Stephen Barrett (2002)

"Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work" by Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.

"Magnetize Your Beverages" by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Biomagnetic Pseudoscience and Nonsense Claims by Miguel A. Sabadell

Magnetic Water and Fuel Treatment: Myth, Magic, or Mainstream Science? by Mike R. Powell, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 1998.

Magnet Therapy Relieves Post-Polio Pain

The Magnetisers from Charles Mackay Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds

A historical perspective of the popular use of electric and magnetic therapy (Basford 2001)

The Wine Clip

blogs

Magnetic Healing Through the Ages by Steven Novella at Neurologica

news stories

Mesmerized by Magnetism - An 18th-century investigation into mesmerism shows us how to think about 21st-century therapeutic magnets By Michael Shermer

California Attorney General Sues Magnetic Mattress Pad Sellers by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

"Magnetic mattress pad: Rude awakening" By Edgar Sanchez -- Sacramento Bee July 30, 2002

Last updated 21-Jan-2014

© Copyright 1994-2014 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.