Originally published in Dr. Marcus Laux's Naturally Well Today, Vol. 6, No. 8 (February 2009); Used with permission.
Natural Healing – Magnetic Healing
Let's face it: Therapy using magnets has a bad reputation. From the days of Anton Mesmer (the source of the word "mesmerize") and his "animal magnetism," to folks selling magnetic bracelets and mugs as a cure for everything from stress to "poor hydration," one great way to completely ruin the reputation of a therapy is to let it get assimilated by snake-oil salesmen. Such is the fate of magnet therapy. There are plenty of folks out there who are desperate, hurting, or otherwise vulnerable to being coaxed out of their hard-earned bucks in exchange for a magical way to cure what-ails-you.
I'm not saying all magnet mongers are liars. Many believe with religious-like fervor that their magnets will cure any disease you can name, from cancer to AIDS to eczema. That's like the modern doctor's blind belief in chemical drugs for health. Both extremes are enthusiastically wrong and dangerous.
Despite all the exaggerated claims for magnets, there is solid science behind magnet therapy for a variety of conditions. For the record I will experiment with magnets, both personally and professionally, but I don't currently rely solely on this modality for any condition. I am optimistic, though, so let's examine the truth as we know it in 2009. I'll give you the extreme views, then my take on the science.
Magnet mongers say: Doctors don't want anyone to believe in magnet therapy because it'll put them out of work.
Nay-sayers say: There's been no good research.
Science says: "Good research" means randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies conducted on a large enough population to determine whether results are significant. That means the people being tested are randomly assigned to groups (randomized), one receiving the real treatment (the treatment group) and one receiving fake treatment (the placebo or control group), and neither the researchers nor the patients know who's getting what until after the data have been gathered and analyzed (they're double-blinded). As a general rule, there have to be at least 5 subjects (patients, laboratory rats, tissue cultures, whatever) in each group for there to be a chance of statistical significance.
The double-blinded requirement stymies researchers because unless the treatments are given in a clinic situation, where the magnets stay in the clinic, patients can take their magnets home and see if they stick to the refrigerator door. If they don't, the device is obviously the placebo. In some studies, researchers tried to get around that by giving strong magnets to the treatment group and weak magnets to the control group, but it isn't necessarily the stronger magnets that have the greatest therapeutic effect. Blinding a study is important because of the proven (and very powerful) mind-body connection that's responsible for the placebo effect – improvement in subjective symptoms even though no real treatment has been given. Currently, the best magnet therapy studies either use subjects that aren't vulnerable to the placebo effect, such as laboratory rats, or eliminate home-treatment. The results from studies that aren't able to work within these limitations can still be valid; they just carry less weight, until they get support from more stringently conducted studies.
Magnet mongers say: Magnets are proven to relieve pain.
Nay-sayers say: It's been proven that magnets have no effect on pain.
Science says: Neither conclusion is appropriate. Whether or not magnet therapy is effective in relieving pain depends on the specifics of the pain and the therapy. There are many different kinds of pain, and many different ways to use magnets. What strength of magnetic field is being used? Is it a static field or a pulsating field? How long is each treatment session, how many sessions are given, and how long does the total treatment program last? Is the therapy aimed at "where it hurts," or on associated trigger points, or on acupuncture points? To claim that magnet therapy works (or doesn't), without specifying the treatment and the condition being treated, is like putting a cast on a broken leg, leaving it on for 10 minutes, taking it off, and concluding it didn't work because the leg is still broken. Here are some examples of well-designed studies (randomized, controlled, double-blinded) showing that magnet therapy truly does have potential in treating of pain:
- A recent study showed that laboratory mice with pain from identical experimental causes, exhibited that pain by writhing on the floor of their cages. (I know, it's awful, but bear with me.) Static magnetic fields created with magnets of a particular strength, arranged on the mice in a particular way, relieved the pain so well that the writhing was reduced by 80 percent.
- Another excellent study, conducted at the National Institutes of Health's Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, got around the "blind" problem by testing two different strengths of magnets on people diagnosed with chronic sciatica (low back pain radiating down their leg). The size, construction, weight, and arrangement of the magnets along the spine were all strictly controlled, and the treatment period lasted for five weeks. Leg pain was significantly reduced by the stronger magnets.
- In a Harvard Medical School study of 29 patients with painful osteoarthritis of the knee, treatments were given in a clinic setting for four hours, eliminating the possibility of ruining the placebo effect. The pain scores decreased by 79 points in the treatment group, versus only 10 points in the placebo group.
- Patients suffering from the painful symptoms of diabetic neuropathy enjoyed significantly less burning, numbness, tingling, and exercise-induced foot pain when treated with magnet therapy. These benefits occurred gradually, over about four months' time.
- A review study found that among 42 scientific reports, 37 showed that magnets brought significant pain relief, especially when magnets were placed on trigger points rather than directly on where it hurt.
So, certain kinds of magnet therapy can effectively treat certain kinds of pain. The professionals most likely to be up on the potential for magnet therapy in the treatment of pain are physical therapists.
In addition to whether it works, another piece of the research puzzle is how. Studies show that a magnetic field has a direct effect on nerves by inhibiting their ability to chemically transmit the electrochemical message of pain from one neuron to the next.
Magnet mongers say: Magnets are proven to speed healing.
Nay-sayers say: There is no reliable proof that they have any effect at all on healing.
Science says: Good studies on humans in this area are understandably few and not well designed, because every accidental wound is different. Studies on surgical incisions are fraught with pitfalls because each patient comes to the surgery with different health issues, and goes home to different situations and different levels of post-surgical wound care.
- An excellent study on laboratory rats, with standardized wounds on their backs, showed that the wounds that were treated with magnets healed completely in 15 days, compared to 20 days for the rats with fake magnets.
- Researchers using a different type of magnet therapy, called ion cyclotron resonance (ICR), found that it significantly helps bones heal, even in fractures that otherwise refuse to knit. In fact, the FDA has approved two devices using ICR. One device is approved for use in treating those stubborn fractures, and the other is for accelerating spinal fusion after back surgery.
Magnet mongers say: Magnets can help people who've had strokes.
Nay-sayers say: Any such "benefit" is entirely from the placebo effect.
Science says: The brain and peripheral nerves are essentially bundles of electrochemical "wires," and it's logical that electromagnetic fields could affect them. Thus far, the research is promising. For example, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), where magnets are applied to both sides of the head or torso, has been shown to stimulate the firing of neurons in the brain and spinal cord.
TMS was put to the test in a well-designed Harvard Medical School study of stroke patients who lost normal motor functioning on one side of the body. Those patients in the treatment group had significantly improved motor performance of the affected side, compared to the placebo group.
A similar study was done with patients afflicted with Parkinson's disease, and the treatment group had significant improvements in several Parkinson's-related symptoms compared to the placebo group.
I'm watching for studies on the use of magnet therapy to replace shock therapy in the treatment of severe depression, and to help reduce or eliminate the need for psychotropic drugs in the treatment of other psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and possibly even schizophrenia. I would also love to find a way to use magnet therapy to help people with seizure disorders.
Magnet mongers say: Magnets can cure urinary incontinence.
Nay-sayers say: The results are mixed.
Science says: There's a reason for the mixed results. A special electromagnetic chair was invented several years ago, for magnet therapy of middle-aged women who had urinary incontinence. One study found more than 60 percent improvement in measurements of key pelvic floor muscles after treatment, but there was no significant difference in the incontinence itself. The problem with the chair is that it's an expensive and non-portable piece of equipment that stays in the clinic. Therefore, patients get treated only intermittently, when they come to the clinic. In another study, treatment was done with portable magnets so the therapy was applied continuously, day and night, for two months. Compared to the control group, the treatment group's incontinence improved significantly.
As you can see, magnets can be useful, no matter what the skeptics say. It's all a matter of knowing what you're doing, and paying attention to the results.
A little patience helps, too. Magnets work by affecting energy fields rather than biochemical pathways, so it can take a while for the benefits to appear. Have faith, and stick with the program, and you'll become a strong believer in the power of magnets.
Here's to being naturally well, today and every day.
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