Magnets Unplugged

Is the force field for real?

Feeling achy? Tired? Nauseous? Have pain in your (insert body part here)? Maybe you need a magnet. Therapeutic magnets resemble refrigerator magnets, though without the decorative doohickeys and presumably with some health benefit beyond their magnetic ability to pull in over $4 billion in sales worldwide in 1999, half a billion of that in the U.S.

Discerning just what these bits of charged metal offer is a challenge for the most open-minded. Take the "depression magnet cap," which looks like something Woody Allen wore out of the Orgasmatron in Sleeper($159 at buyamag.com). Buyamag's Web site says the cap, which has Velcro closures and 57 gold-plated magnets, is comfortable, but nowhere does it mention what the cap does. The potential wearer is likely expected to divine its purpose from the list of frontal-lobe brain functions—including "emotions," "behavior," and "problem-solving"—posted beneath the illustration.

The Food and Drug Administration's prohibition on unfounded medical claims partly explains the vague tone of many magnet ads. Magnetic mattress pads for the sleep-deprived (up to $520 on mags4pain.com) are described only as restoring energy and promoting restful sleep. A magnetic eye massager ($74.95 from lifeandlight.com) is billed as addressing the decidedly nonmedical problem of "baggy eyes," while magnetic earrings, bracelets, and necklaces are promoted as "pretty and effective."

Effective at what? Well, according to the many testimonials scattered over the Internet and mail-order magnet catalogues, magnets can do almost anything, including normalize blood pressure, stimulate nerves, repair muscles, reduce the need to go to the bathroom, promote healing, increase energy, even—perhaps inevitably—cure cancer. The most common claims are about pain relief, which is the goal of applying magnetic patches to acupuncture points and wearing magnetic belts around backs, shoulders, knees, ankles, and feet.

There are lots of ideas about how magnets achieve these feats. A popular theory is that magnetic fields penetrate cells and, by magnetizing blood, increase the flow of oxygen throughout the body. Another is that magnets block pain by stimulating the nervous system. One overarching explanation of magnets' health value might be called the Cuisinart theory, which posits that modern electrical appliances have diminished the earth's natural magnetic force, and that therapeutic magnets restore it to the more healthful levels of olden days.

Oddly, back in that idyllic past healers were already playing with magnets. Sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus figured that magnets might be able to draw diseases from the body based on their ability to attract iron. Later, Franz Anton Mesmer came up with "animal magnetism," the idea that humans and animals could be healed through magnets or even leather or wood exposed to them. Though that concept was soon trashed by a panel of experts, believers persisted. An 1886 mail-order catalogue offered a complete magnet-coated costume that provided "full and complete protection of the vital organs of the body" (and wouldn't look half bad with the right magnet-studded cap).

Perhaps therapeutic magnetism continues to draw because it makes some sense—with emphasis on the word some. The earth does indeed exert magnetic force on humans; that force has diminished over the years, and many animals do have built-in magnetic receptors (though none have been discovered yet in humans).

Indeed, one offshoot of magnetism has proven useful. Decades ago, the FDA approved the use of electromagnetic fields from pulsed magnets to stimulate bone growth and heal fractures. But while therapeutic electromagnetism—which involves generating a magnetic field by running electrical current through wire—has ascended to widespread acceptance, therapeutic magnets of the weaker, nonelectric sort remain on the fringe.

It's not just that no one really understands how magnets work—understanding isn't necessary for effectiveness; no one had a good grasp of radiation when it was first used, nor do we understand yet how some cancer drugs, like thalidomide, work. Most careful studies show that magnets don't work. One comparison found no difference in pain relief in patients who wore sham versus magnetic insoles; another that magnetic necklaces had no effect on neck or shoulder pain; another that dental magnets didn't affect blood flow in the cheek.

Amid piles of evidence that they don't work, though, is one study demonstrating that magnets did relieve pain in patients who'd had polio. Researchers at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation Research in Houston used fake magnets on some patients and real ones on others, a design that cuts out the possibility of the placebo effect. Nevertheless, they found a significant reduction in pain among the patients who used real magnets.

Though the Baylor results have yet to be duplicated—and most researchers consider a repeat performance the real test of validity—the Baylor study leaves the door open to the possibility that some magnets do have health benefits. Needless to say, many an eager patient and retailer have walked right through.

In addition to the celebrities who have embraced magnets—including Regis Philbin and baseball players David Cone and Hideki Irabu—big retailers like Kmart are now getting into the market. There wouldn't be a magnet market if not for the buyers, of course. And that's where optimism comes in.

Robert Lane, a massage therapist and psychic healer who practices on the Upper East Side, uses industrial magnets to treat colds and flu, wrapping them in cloth and hanging them around his neck. He came up with this through his own reading and creativity. He constructed a magnetic bed to treat his chronic fatigue syndrome, sleeping on a metal cart full of magnets for months—a treatment he happily credits with banishing his exhaustion.

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