Magnetic therapy dates as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Magnets have long been believed to have healing powers associated with muscle pain and stiffness. Chinese healers as early as 200 B.C. were said to use magnetic lodestones on the body to correct unhealthy imbalances in the flow of qi, or energy.
The ancient Chinese medical text known as The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine describes this procedure. The Vedas, or ancient Hindu scriptures, also mention the treatment of diseases with lodestones.
The word “lodestone” or leading stone, came from the use of these stones as compasses. The word “magnet” probably stems from the Greek Magnes lithos, or “stone from Magnesia,” a region of Greece rich in magnetic stones. The Greek phrase later became magneta in Latin.
Sir William Gilbert’s 1600 treatise, De Magnete, was the first scholarly attempt to explain the nature of magnetism and how it differed from the attractive force of static electricity.
Gilbert allegedly used magnets to relieve the arthritic pains of Queen Elizabeth I. Contemporary American interest in magnetic therapy began in the 1990s, as several professional golfers and football players offered testimony that the devices seemed to cure their nagging aches and injuries.
Many centuries ago, the earth was surrounded by a much stronger magnetic field than it is today. Over the past 155 years, scientists have been studying the decline of this magnetic field and the effects it has had on human health.
When the first cosmonauts and astronauts were going into space, physicians noted that they experienced bone calcium loss and muscle cramps when they were out of the Earth’s magnetic field for any extended period of time. After this discovery was made, artifical magnetic fields were placed in the space capsules.
Some of the benefits that magnetic therapy claims to provide include:
- pain relief
- reduction of swelling
- improved tissue alkalinization
- more restful sleep
- increased tissue oxygenation
- relief of stress
- increased levels of cellular oxygen
- improved blood circulation
- anti-infective activity
There are two theories that are used to explain magnetic therapy. One theory maintains that magnets produce a slight electrical current. When magnets are applied to a painful area of the body, the nerves in that area are stimulated, thus releasing the body’s natural painkillers.
The other theory maintains that when magnets are applied to a painful area of the body, all the cells in that area react to increase blood circulation, ion exchange, and oxygen flow to the area. Magnetic fields attract and repel charged particles in the bloodstream, increasing blood flow and producing heat. Increased oxygen in the tissues and blood stream is thought to make a considerable difference in the speed of healing.
The primary precaution involved with magnetic therapy is to recognize the expense of this therapy. Magnets have become big business; they can be found in mail-order catalogs and stores ranging from upscale department stores to specialty stores. As is the case with many popular self-administered therapies, many farfetched claims are being made about the effectiveness of magnetic therapy.
Consumers should adopt a “let the buyer beware” approach to magnetic therapy. Persons who are interested in this form of treatment should try out a small, inexpensive item to see if it works for them before investing in the more expensive products.
There are very few side effects from using magnetic therapy. Generally, patients using this therapy find that it either works for them or it does not. Patients using transcranial magnetic stimulation for the treatment of depression reported mild headache as their only side effect.
Research and general acceptance
Magnetic therapy is becoming more and more widely accepted as an alternative method of pain relief. Since the late 1950s, hundreds of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of magnetic therapy.
In 1997, a group of physicians at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas studied the use of magnetic therapy in 50 patients who had developed polio earlier in life. These patients had muscle and joint pain that standard treatments failed to manage. In this study, 29 of the patients wore a magnet taped over a trouble spot, and 21 others wore a nonmagnetic device.
Neither the researchers nor the patients were told which treatment they were receiving (magnetic or nonmagnetic). As is the case with most studies involving a placebo, some of the patients responded to the nonmagnetic therapy, but 75% of those using the magnetic therapy reported feeling much better.
In another study at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, a neurologist tested magnetic therapy on a group of 19 men and women complaining of moderate to severe burning, tingling, or numbness in their feet. Their problems were caused by diabetes or other conditions present such as alcoholism.
This group of patients wore a magnetic insole inside one of their socks or shoes for 24 hours a day over a two-month period, except while bathing. They wore a nonmagnetic insert in their other sock or shoe. Then for two months they wore magnetic inserts on both feet.
By the end of the study, nine out of ten of the diabetic patients reported relief, while only three of nine nondiabetic patients reported relief. The neurologist in charge of the study believes that this study opens the door to additional research into magnetic therapy for diabetic patients. He plans a larger follow-up study in the near future.
In 2000, a federally funded study began at the University of Virginia. This study evaluated the effectiveness of magnetic mattress pads in easing the muscle pain, stiffness and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia.
Magnetic therapy is also being studied in the treatment of depression and for patients with bipolar disorder. A procedure called repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation has shown promise in treating this condition.
In one study, patients with depression had a lower relapse rate than did those using electroconvulsive therapy. Unlike electroconvulsive therapy, patients using magnetic therapy did not suffer from seizures, memory lapses, or impaired thinking.
Progress continues on the study of magnets and the brain. In 2002, more than 2,000 patients had undergone transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for treatment of depression at the University of South Carolina with promising preliminary results. TMS is less shocking to the brain than electroconvulsive therapy. Another study was testing the use of magnets for therapy of essential tremors.
By using a control group with sham repetitive TMS, the researchers noted tremor improvement and no adverse effects from the magnet therapy. These applications of magnet therapy are still under study and are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but look promising.