Paging Dr. Frischer: magnet therapy

For thousands of years, magnets have been used for healing, and today magnet therapy is a big business. Annual worldwide sales of magnets for treatment are estimated at over $5 billion.

In magnet therapy, a magnet is applied to the skin or close to the skin. Some people wear them to treat painful conditions including pain after surgery, lower back pain, foot pain, heel pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, painful menstrual periods, diabetic neuropathy, sports injuries, and migraine headaches. Magnets are also worn to treat chronic fatigue syndrome, water retention, wounds, erectile dysfunction, insomnia, tinnitus, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, epilepsy, and incontinence. Is there scientific data to support such use?

Electricity and magnetism are actually manifestations of the same force: electromagnetism. A variety of electromagnetic fields naturally occur in our bodies. The heart generates the largest magnetic field, and nervous system transmissions and related muscle contractions are associated with magnetic activity. Could abnormal magnetic fields in the body result in certain disease states, and could magnets play a role in restoring these magnetic fields?

Magnets can create two kinds of magnetic fields: pulsating or static.

*A pulsating magnetic field is capable of generating an electrical current. Many aspects of cell function and cell communication involve electrical potentials or currents, and therefore it is plausible that a pulsating magnetic field might affect electrical current in tissue and consequently have an effect. The best-established clinical use of a pulsating magnetic field is in healing bone fractures.

*Static magnetic fields (SMF) do not generate electrical current. This type of field is created by, for example, a common refrigerator magnet. Any biological or medical evidence dealing with pulsating magnetic fields is not applicable to static fields. Also note that the strength of the magnets typically used is very low and does not penetrate deeply into the body, so it is not likely to have a biological effect.

To date, there have been no scientific studies demonstrating a mechanism for how a SMF would provide a therapeutic benefit. One theory is that SMF attracts the iron in blood. However, the iron in blood is not ferromagnetic (attracted to magnets). Another claim is that SMF affects the flow of ions in the blood, thus altering blood flow. Not only are the strengths of the particular magnets used too weak for this, but also the purpose would be unclear. Finally, it has been stated that SMF provides more oxygen to the tissue and decreases inflammation. This could be of great value, but there has been no scientific evidence to support it.

There have been many magnet studies conducted on both laboratory animals and humans. Some studies were well designed, double blind, and carefully analyzed. Others were not. These studies have given us a greater understanding of therapeutic magnetism. At this time, however, the success stories are anecdotal rather than scientific. Scientific studies have not yet justified using magnets in mainstream medical care. Magnetic devices are generally considered safe, but they may result in a delay in other treatments or diagnoses. My advice is to save your money and time until there is further scientific evidence supporting the therapeutic benefits of magnets. 

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.