What Is It?
Magnet therapy involves the use of a magnetic device placed on or near the body to relieve pain and facilitate healing. The magnetic products on the market today come in many forms. They can be taped to the skin, worn as jewelry or in your shoes, or slept on as pillows and mattresses. Arthritis, insomnia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and headaches are among the long list of ailments for which people have tried magnet therapy. Although no one can say how magnets work, advocates claim that they can have a profound effect on the body, particularly in relieving pain.
The lure of magnets for medicinal purposes is not new. The ancient Greeks believed that lodestones (natural magnetic rocks) had therapeutic powers. In the sixteenth century, Swiss-born alchemist and physician Philippus von Hohenheim, who went by the pseudonym Paracelsus, purportedly used magnets to draw illness from the body. Over the past decade, magnet therapy has become increasingly popular, especially among professional athletes who use it for aches and pains. Even so, magnet therapy remains controversial. Scientists have only recently begun the well-designed research needed to persuade most mainstream doctors to add magnets to their medicinal arsenals.
How Does It Work?
The theory behind magnet therapy is that the magnetic fields produced by magnets (or by devices that generate electromagnetic current) can penetrate the human body and affect the functioning of individual cells and improve the working of the nervous system and various organs. Precisely how the magnetic fields do this remains a mystery, but there are several hypotheses. Some say that the electrical current created by magnets interrupts the transmission of pain signals in the central nervous system. Others claim that magnets increase blood flow to an area, boosting the flow of oxygen and other nutrients, and ultimately reducing pain and swelling.
What You Can Expect
It is believed that magnets must be placed precisely to have an effect (they work best when placed over a body area that has some degree of intact circulation). Therefore it is ideal to do magnet therapy under the guidance of a doctor or bodyworker (such as a massage therapist) experienced in its use. Many people choose to use magnets on their own, however.
If you are trying magnets for arthritis or another type of pain, you may be advised to purchase small magnetic devices that can be secured to the ailing body part with tape, elastic bandages, or Velcro. These magnets typically generate a magnetic field ranging from 250 to 500 gauss–about 10 times stronger than the magnets on your refrigerator. (A gauss is a unit of measurement for the intensity of magnetic flux.)SOme people believe that magnets may work in part for conditions such as arthritis because taping them to the affected joint acts like a splint, limiting movement.
Depending on how much pain you are experiencing, you might be advised to keep the magnets in place for as little as five minutes or to wear them for a number of hours every day over several weeks. If you are trying magnets for insomnia, your doctor may suggest a magnetic pillow or mattress pad, which may generate as much as 4,000 gauss. (The gauss measurement should be greater when the magnetic source is farther from the body.)
To date, there has not been enough research completed to determine what, if any, gauss level is high enough to be harmful. Because magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines generate magnetic fields as high as 15,000 gauss with no known harmful side effects, magnet therapy advocates claim that the strength of therapeutic magnets poses no health risk.
Magnetic therapy is used most often for pain, usually of the joints and muscles. Magnets have also been applied to relieve post-surgery pain. Some advocates suggest that magnets can reduce stress, as well as relieve insomnia and treat migraine. Others even claim that magnetic therapy can fight infection and improve central nervous system disorders, such as seizures. While research has shown that magnet therapy can indeed relieve pain, there is little solid evidence validating it for other ailments.
In a study published in the American Journal of Pain Management in 1999, magnetic foot insoles were shown to be effective in reducing foot pain in those with diabetes.Still, the findings are preliminary. And many other studies have shown that magnets do not provide effective therapy. A new, experimental area of research involves transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique that permits stimulation of the brain’s surface using strong magnetic fields. Most research using TMS has concentrated on it as a treatment for severe depression. However, the therapy may eventually prove useful for other illnesses, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Magnet therapy may be practiced by a doctor or bodyworker or may be self-administered. It’s best to work with a reputable and experienced practitioner who is knowledgeable about the therapeutic use of magnets.
The magnetic devices available over-the-counter vary dramatically in size, shape, strength, and price. Smaller devices, such as those that can be taped to the wrist, cost around $25. Magnetic insoles can run about $100, and you could spend about $300 to $800 on a magnet-filled mattress pad. Be sure the product you are considering has a refund option, and try to buy any magnetic products from a reputable vendor.
If you have a pacemaker or an implanted defibrillator, do not use magnets. Also, do not use magnets near a person who has a pacemaker or defibrillator, as the magnetic field could interfere with its operation.
If you are allergic to the metal in the magnets, use products that are covered in hypoallergenic plastic.
Avoid magnet therapy if you are pregnant, because magnets have not been tested on pregnant women.
Some patients report feeling lightheaded after wearing magnets near the carotid arteries (the main arteries in the neck that lead to the brain).
Wait an hour after eating before using magnets near the abdomen; they may affect blood flow in the digestive system.
Do not sleep on a magnetic mattress pad for more than eight hours at a time.
David Edelberg, MD