Facts of the Matter
Magnets unreliable as health aides
People have used magnets for healing since ancient Greek times. Today, therapeutic magnets of various types are a $5 billion-dollar industry, used by nearly 200 million people worldwide. The list of maladies that magnets are reputed to cure is long; among them are depression, pain, inflammation, arthritis, Alzheimer's, diabetes, aches, muscle tension, migraine headaches, allergies, asthma, fibromyalgia, TMJ disorder and brain tumors.
The magnetic therapy industry is not regulated. But based on anecdotal evidence for cures, consumers buy bracelets, knee braces, shoe inserts, mattresses and other products that are embedded with magnets
There has been no good scientific research that validates magnet therapy, though there has been the occasional positive study.
Unfortunately, the positive studies do not support definitive conclusions and have not been replicated. Valid medical studies require double-blind experiments to avoid the placebo effect or the psychological healing effect of the doctor's presence.
Studies that showed positive results used magnetic fields tens to hundreds of times stronger than those available in over-the-counter products.
Magnetic therapy is purported to work by one of two methods. First is that the iron atoms in hemoglobin are attracted to the magnet. This reveals a gross misunderstanding of a magnet's attractiveness to iron.
The magnetic properties of iron depend upon the particular alignment of iron atoms in a crystal structure of the type that is present in metallic iron and in an iron oxide mineral known as magnetite or lodestone.
The second method by which magnet therapies supposedly work is that magnets attract negative and positive ions in the blood plasma and polar molecules on the red blood cells.
The problem is that a magnetic field 300,000 times stronger than Earth's natural magnetic field would be required to have an impact on blood flow. Yet the strongest therapeutic magnets are barely 100 times Earth's field at the surface of the magnet and weaken rapidly with distance from the magnet. This is barely enough strength to hold a few sheets of paper to a refrigerator.
The benefits of magnet therapy may not be due to the magnets themselves. Magnetic wraps provide both physical support and insulation that can help heal aches and pulled muscles.
The National Institute for Health (NIH), after a review of the worldwide scientific literature regarding magnet therapy wrote: " . . . the scientific evidence to support the success of this therapy is lacking. More scientifically sound studies are needed in order to fully understand the effects that magnets can have on the body and the possible benefits or dangers that could result from their use."
Ardent supporters of magnetic therapy base their beliefs on a metaphysical assumption that illness is due to imbalance or disharmony in energy. Magnets are thought to restore the balance or flow of electromagnetic energy to restore health.
For now, science does not support magnetic therapy as a valid treatment for anything. Those who believe are likely to go on believing, but like copper bracelets, alpha biofeedback, and magic crystals, this fad likely will pass.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org