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Hazel and David Croucher

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MAGNETIC THERAPY: EVIDENCE AND TRIALS


This page covers:
Why there are no consistent test results on magnotherapy
The strong evidence for hospital electromagnotherapy equipment
The unproven results for commercial magnetic appliances
The appliance trials that were successful
Conclusions

The Good, The Bad and The Inconclusive


Magnetic therapy has come into disrepute among scientists and doctors, with good reason — hard evidence that it works is difficult to get.  

Therapy with magnets can’t be easily tested by Scientific Method — that is, by performing a test which anyone can copy and get the same results.  Bodies and conditions vary too much for any test to be easily replicated (the same is true for pain drugs), and Double Blind testing (where no-one knows who has the real thing and who has the placebo) is difficult to achieve because magnets are so easy to spot if you’ve got the real thing, rather than the dummy.

So a range of collected evidence must be used and this always leaves enough doubt for cynics to mock any kind of evidence.  Sceptics like me can be convinced, though, by the wealth of evidence now available suggesting that some kinds of magnetic therapy are effective - while others aren’t..

So how do we find out whether a particular magnetic therapy is genuine, or misguided wishful thinking, or an outright cheat?
 

The problem

You’ll often hear doctors saying that magnotherapy is a waste of time, because there’s simply no evidence that it works.  That was probably true, 30 years ago. What’s happened since?

Medline is the world’s biggest medical sciences database, available by subscription to medical practitioners.  On it are reports of hundreds of trials over the last several decades on the use of magnets to relieve pain and aid healing, often run side-by-side with trials on a drug therapy or other appliance.  The majority of these studies could find no definite evidence that the magnetic therapy being tested was any use.  We might conclude, then, that this is the majority opinion and magnetic therapy is a waste of time.  Many doctors have done just this, and recommend patients not to waste their money on magnotherapy.

But wait!  That isn’t evidence; it’s like saying that you can test medical evidence for say, a diabetes drug, by looking at tests for arthritis, kidney disease, etc!

The problem is that there isn’t a consistent pattern of research on magnotherapy. Each trial studied one kind of magnetic therapy for a specific disease or problem and under set conditions.  The magnets used varied enormously, from electro-magnetic machines to powerful static magnets to weak magnets.  And the way the magnets were applied and the time allowed for results varied too.  Most of the trials, especially the early ones, have been pioneering.  They were probing for some ideas about what might work rather than testing a treatment.  

To sort out all this hugely varied evidence, let’s get scientific and look at a hypothesis. Let’s suppose (as a theory) that magnetic therapy does sometimes work, but only with the right treatment, and for the right conditions.  If this supposition is true, you wouldn’t be surprised if most treatments turned out to be ineffective.  Maybe the magnets were inappropriate, or the conditions trialled were not responsive to magnet therapy, or the treatment regime was flawed. Early researchers themselves often admitted that they were groping in the dark, looking for ways to see what kind of magnotherapy works.  Many of the trials would have served to eliminate the ineffective methods and equipment and conditions that magnetic therapy can’t help.

So, what an enquirer needs to do today is to look back over all this historical evidence and sort it out: when was magnotherapy ineffective, and when might it have worked?  Was there gold among the dross, or is the whole idea of magnetic therapy false?

Maybe we should look to see if certain treatments were pretty reliable, even if others usually got no results?  Maybe magnotherapy works only if it uses certain methods, or is tried on certain complaints, or is used under certain conditions? The problem is that the reported trials are so varied that we can’t easily work it out.  It needs some digging.

Let’s look at the evidence about magnetic therapy

A look through the evidence on Medline — and I’ve done it — shows that the several hundred studies fall into two broad classes: first, electromagnetic therapy machines and second, permanent (static) magnets, usually tested in the West as commercially available appliances.  So let’s look at them separately.

Electromagnotherapy equipment — the professional’s choice

Electromagnets for therapy seem to have been first developed and studied at Russian universities several decades ago as an alternative to expensive, patented, Western drugs. As positive results began to emerge, it was taken up by doctors in the West.  All kinds of ideas were tried in the early days, but the research shows that two important principles for effectiveness emerged.  First, the machines had to be quite powerful — too powerful to be worn and carried round conveniently; and second, using an alternating current to generate the magnetic field made a huge difference to the therapy.  In other words, it worked best if a strong magnetic flux was pulsed between north and south poles quite rapidly.  

By the 1980s there were several well-proven brands of machine available for hospitals and physiotherapy clinics to buy, and today, the doctors and therapists don’t so much argue over whether magnetic therapy machines work, as over what settings to use for each condition for which it’s been found to be useful.  The technology has come of age.

So if you want sure magnotherapy, one way is to go to a clinic and pay for a 20-30 minute treatment several times a week.  Mind, many doctors are still convinced that it doesn’t work at all!

But, you might ask, surely this stuff can be miniaturized and made portable these days? Yes. It has been, and the machines cost several thousand dollars — that’s what the clinics use these days.  ‘Portable’ means that the equipment can be carried or wheeled from room to room, then plugged into the electricity supply.  Too much power is needed for batteries to be practical.  It’s used alongside similar-looking ultrasonic, infrared and high-frequency treatment equipment, and it’s popular with sports injury therapists.

Permanent Magnets — the consumer market’s choice

At the other end of the cost scale, permanent magnets provide a cheaper appliance that can be held to parts of the body.  There are hundreds of kinds of magnetic appliances on sale across the world.  They range from $10 straps and wristbands on urban market stalls to items costing several hundred dollars.  There are even mattress covers costing over $1000, dotted with tiny cheap magnets. The types of magnets, the strength and the numbers used are not at all consistent with the price, nor with the general reputation of the supplier.  

So, when you buy an appliance, how much is it worth paying?  Well, nothing, if it doesn’t work!  But quite a lot if it really does give the same pain relief and help with healing as hospital equipment.  

Let’s look at the medical trial results.  

Early trials on the sort of static magnets sold to the public were inconclusive — no results that I could find showed that the appliance helped obviously more than the placebo (the dummy device), and in some cases it got slightly worse results.  This is just what you’d expect in small random trials where benefits are marginal or non-existent, or where only a few patients in the sample responded well to the treatment.

But more recent trials on commercial products, while usually being pessimistic, showed occasional good results.  From these it generally emerged that the key factor was getting a powerful enough magnetic field close enough to the seat of pain.  And even this mostly got no clear results.  Some trials did get positive results, though, and most of them had one factor in common.

Some successful trials on magnetic appliances

So, let’s look at some of the few studies supporting the use of static magnets to reduce pain.  The two best known are the Baylor study on post-polio pain and the Weintraub study on neuropathy pain relief.  We’ll also look at two more — the Man study, because it is typical of flesh wound treatment, and the Peninsula study, the largest yet, because its innovative method should lead to fresh approaches.

The Baylor double blinded study applied a bi-polar magnet for 45 minutes and found a significantly better pain relief using the real magnets than from the placebos.  It was a limited trial for an uncommon type of pain, though, so don’t expect the results to be widely applicable.  In particular, the term ‘bi-polar’ as used here means that both north and south poles are used close together against the skin.  This kind of system isn’t common. You’ll see a lot of appliance sellers mention bi-polar magnets because of this study (and from the Peninsula Study).  But many sellers choose to use the word ‘bipolar’ differently than the researchers — to mean that their magnets have two poles, one at each end.  Well, of course!  All magnets have THAT!  Don't be misled by weasel words into confusing bipolar systems with applying one pole to the skin and the other facing out, which is what most vendors sell.

The Weintraub study was extended over several months, and found magnetic shoe insoles provided statistically significantly better pain relief than non magnetic insoles.  Again these were bipolar magnets.  Do note that almost all insoles on sale use the north pole only against the skin, even if the maker does describe the magnets as ‘bi-polar’.

The Man study in Florida looked at 20 patients after liposuction of excess body fat, or ‘love handles’.  In this brief research by plastic surgeon Daniel Man, 10 patients wore magnetic pads on their wounds and 10 others had sham magnets in the pads.  Those who got the magnetic pads had less pain in the first week, less swelling in the first four days and less bruising in the first three days than the group with the dummy.  A more recent UK commercially-sponsored trial on magnets in dressings over bedsores found clear improvements in healing time over plain dressings.  It was carried out by district nurses. In fact, any reasonably powerful magnets will give these results.

Also in the UK, the Peninsula Medical School of Exeter University did a double-blinded trial in 2002-3 on 196 general practice clinic patients, testing a commercial Bioflow Classic CRP unit (a high-power bipolar magnet system) in a wristband.  It found that pain from osteoarthritis of the hip and knee decreased significantly when wearing a Bioflow magnetic bracelet, whereas the ordinary magnet and the plain steel washer placebo also tested in the same case made little difference to the pain.  To see more about this trial and its results and find out why they might affect you, go to the Bioflow Trial page.

So what can we conclude?

In  these studies and others which had a successful conclusion, the key seems to be using both poles of the magnet alongside each other, although this seems to make less difference over ordinary strong magnets when treating skin lesions and damage, where the area to be treated is within a millimetre or two of the magnet.

For most problems, the stronger the magnet, the better the results seem to be, and to have both north and south poles close together on the skin seems to make a large difference, probably because blood flowing past the magnets passes through a reversing field with a steep flux gradient.  It does seem that the closer the treatment system gets to electro-magnotherapy in hospitals, the better the results — which makes sense, I suppose.

The future

It’s early days yet.  Much more research is needed, especially into how it all works.  We need more trials like that on the Bioflow CRP System, to find out just how effective static magnets are on different conditions — especially, we need to see clear evidence from modern trials on the ordinary magnets used by most suppliers.  And we need some fundamental research, to find out why magnetic therapy works at all.  I have my own ideas, from my reading and from observation, but that isn’t evidence; it’s informed speculation.

What Next?

For more information on what’s been discovered about how magnetic therapy works, go to the Science and Theory page.

For my advice on picking a static magnetic therapy for yourself, go to the Choosing Magnetic Therapy page and read my — admittedly biased — advice. I’m unashamedly favouring Bioflow, because I KNOW they work when others rarely do.  And with the money-back guarantee, you can do your own trial with no risk.

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