Scientists have been testing the validity of healing by magnets since the 16th century when an alchemist named Paracelsus used magnets to treat conditions such as epilepsy and hemorrhage. Magnetic therapy gained popularity in the 18th century when Franz Mesmer, an Austrian doctor credited with developing the field of hypnosis, opened a magnetic healing salon in Paris. Though condemned by the medical community, magnet therapy gained popularity among the lay community.
Over the next few centuries, medical authorities dismissed magnetic therapy as quackery, mainly because magnet sellers in the 1800s promised, “Magnetism properly applied will cure every curable disease no matter what the cause.” Such bold claims have obscured the medical efficacy of magnet therapy since then. However, its popularity continues to rise in the 21st century as people search for alternatives to modern medicine.
The magnet therapy that is popular among aficionados of complementary medicine purports to have a positive effect on chronic pain and nerve damage. Testimonials by patients who have used magnet therapy abound on the Web. The general consensus among these mostly non-medically-trained magnet users is that magnet therapy alleviates chronic pain better than traditional medicine—but is this medical fact or fiction?
Details of a small, controlled trial were reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March 2000. The researchers compared a popular type of magnet therapy, “bipolar magnet therapy,” to a placebo device identical to the magnet. In bipolar magnet therapy, both the north and south poles of a magnet are positioned toward the skin. The subjects were 20 adults who had experienced chronic back pain for at least six months, possibly due to spinal-disc degeneration. Each subject wore the magnetic device for several hours one week then switched to the placebo the next week. They did not alter their medication intake.
Investigators found no differences between the effect of the placebo and the magnet on the subjects’ back pain in this study. The researchers point out, however, that the findings do not invalidate the effectiveness of magnet therapy because the study was not large enough. In addition, chronic back pain is known as one of the most difficult chronic conditions to heal; so stronger magnets may have been needed.
Other studies suggest that magnets may, in fact, have a healing effect on pain associated with osteoarthritis of the knee, post-polio syndrome, and diabetic nerve damage. These studies assigned real and placebo magnets as well, and the results indicate that chronic pain was significantly reduced. Some researchers believe that the effect is due to the static magnetic field bumping into some of the body’s pain-detecting nerves. Although this claim is unsubstantiated as of yet, it could possibly be proven true.
Still, no study has established magnet therapy as an adequate replacement for traditional medical therapy. In fact, some of the wearable magnets marketed as therapeutic have inadequate magnetic force to penetrate the skin and thus relieve pain. Multi-level marketing pyramids have been hawking magnets as cure-alls without much evidence to back up the claims. Magnets are sometimes recommended for something simple such as ergonomic adjustment.
Magnet therapy is esteemed as a complimentary medicine, but should never take the place of consultation with a doctor and scientifically proven medications. The long-term damage of magnets is unknown, although many experts feel that it is negligible. For patients who are willing to pay for magnets—which are not cheap—the possibility of curing chronic pain is almost irresistible.