by Maia Appleby
Magnets were used as medical devices before the refrigerator was even invented. In fact, the Yellow Emperor's Book of Internal Medicine, published in China more than 4000 years ago, suggested that magnets might be useful for healing purposes. Cleopatra was known for wearing a magnet on her forehead to retain youthfulness, and Aristotle spoke to the Greeks about magnetic healing. It's been around.
Throughout the centuries leading up to today, physicians and scientists across the globe have been toying with the idea. Some have taken holistic approaches, feeling that magnets controlled the body's 'life force' and 'humors', primitive versions of today's medical terminology.
Others noted that the Earth is one big magnet and that people are also magnetic in nature. Magnetic energy imbalance was blamed for mental illness, seizures and fainting. The notion prevails to modern times that a magnet applied to the human body increases blood flow, improving the body's ability to heal afflicted areas and carry away toxins, speeding up its natural healing process.
It's a hot debate in sports medicine these days. Magnetic pain relief devices are popping up on shelves all over the place, in use by elite athletes and the elderly alike. Some people claim that it works and some argue that it's all psychological. Although no conclusive studies have been done on this topic, there's some convincing evidence supporting the benefits of magnet therapy... and lots of skeptics. Here's what both sides have to say about it:
'This is not magic. There is nothing mystical about this. We have tested magnets on more than 5000 patients and there is no doubt ' the treatment works.'
-Robert Holcombe, M.D., Professor of Neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center
'I've used hundreds of pain relieving products from all over the world, and biomagnetic therapy products have given me the best results.'
-Kurt Angle, 1996 Olympic Gold Medal for Wrestling
'I know what a difference magnets have made in my life. I'd like to help anyone else I can to feel this great.'
-Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins Quarterback
'Bioflex medical magnets applied to a localized painful area delivering static magnetic fields of 300 to 500 gauss over a pain trigger point results in significant and prompt relief of pain.'
-Carlos Vallbona, MD, Carlton F. Hazelwood, PhD, Gabor Jurida, MD, Baylor University College of Medicine
'Application of one variety of permanent magnet had no effect on our small group of subjects with chronic low back pain.'
Edward A. Collacott, MD; John T. Zimmerman, PhD; Donald W. White, PT; Joseph P. Rindone, PharmD (Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000;283:1322-1325)
'The magnetic foil offered no advantage over the plain insole.'
-Caselli MA, Clark N, Lazarus S, Velez Z, Venegas L, Department of Orthopedic Sciences, New York College of Podiatric Medicine (Journal of American Podiatry: 87(01): 11-16, 1997)
'The use of a magnet for reducing pain attributed to carpal tunnel syndrome was no more effective than use of the placebo device.'
-Richard Carter; Thomas Hall; Cheryl B. Aspy, PhD; and James Mold, MD, MPH (Journal of Family Practice: 51(01) 1-2002)
It seems that the people who swear by magnet therapy do it based on emotions, while the skeptics include those who actually conducted research on it. Does this make it seem like a psychological remedy? Maybe, but who cares? If it works, that's all that really matters to a person in pain.
Before you buy:
Magnets are made with a wide range of strength levels, measured in gauss. Little research has been done on what a 'safe' level for therapeutic use may be for prolonged use, but keep in mind that, while the average refrigerator magnet measures at about 60 gauss, an MRI scan subjects a person to about 50,000 gauss without causing harm. What's safe for you? Ask your physician.
NOTE OF CAUTION: Magnets should not be used by pregnant women or people with pacemakers or implants.