This hotly debated form of therapy is usually prescribed to relieve pain–primarily muscle and joint pain, but occasionally headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other types of pain as well. Among its many applications are muscle strains; sprains of the spine, neck or limbs; hip and joint pain; arthritis; phantom limb pain; fibromyalgia; osteoarthritis; persistent rotator cuff tendinitis; and chronic pelvic pain. In addition, magnetic fields are sometimes used to speed the healing of bone fractures, and some proponents even advocate magnets to relieve stress, combat infections, and prevent seizures.
The numerous studies that have been conducted on the efficacy of magnets have typically yielded quite contradictory results. Proponents announce favorable findings, only to find themselves debunked in subsequent trials. They usually respond that the follow-up studies failed to properly employ the precise magnetic devices responsible for initial success.
How the Treatments Are Done
The devices employed in this form of therapy range from small, simple magnetic discs to large, sophisticated magnetic field generators capable of producing high-intensity magnetism. The larger machines are typically used to treat bone fractures and pseudoarthrosis (a false joint at the site of an unknit fracture).
For pain management, small magnetic discs are usually taped to the body over the areas that radiate the pain, known as the pain trigger points. Magnets used for this type of therapy typically generate a field measured at 350 to 500 gauss, or about 10 times the strength of a typical refrigerator magnet. To hold the magnet in place, many people find sports bandages, headbands, elastic bandages or Velcro more comfortable and less confining than tape.
To relieve stress and insomnia, some practitioners advocate magnetic blankets and beds. These devices produce a much stronger field in order to compensate for the loss of potency caused by their greater distance from the skin. For example, in such conditions, a 4,000 gauss magnet is needed to deliver 1,200 gauss to the patient.
Although all magnets have two poles–positive (south) and negative (north)–they vary drastically in size and strength. If you plan to try a magnet for pain relief, your best bet is to purchase a therapeutic magnet from a reputable, medical vendor who will allow you to use it on a trial basis. Magnets delivering between 300 and 500 gauss are considered safe for home use.
Treatment Time: Depending on the severity of the pain, the magnet may be left in place for as little as 3 minutes or as long as several days.
Treatment Frequency: Varies with the nature and severity of the condition. Often the magnet is applied several times per day for several days or weeks at a time. Many people use this therapy at the first sign of a recurrence of pain.
What Treatment Hopes to Accomplish
The rationales for magnetic field therapy are as controversial as the treatment itself. Here are some of the leading theories.
Pain Relief. Some advocates ascribe the therapy’s purported benefits to its affect on the nervous system, which depends on electrical charges to deliver its signals. Others say that magnets exert a pull on charged particles within bodily fluids, thereby promoting the flow of blood to the damaged joints or muscles, boosting levels of oxygen and nutrients, and ultimately relieving pain.
(Advocates warn that these results are often difficult to achieve without the guidance of a professional trained in magnetic field therapy. To be effective, they say, the magnetic field and the target bodily fluids must be at right angles, creating what is known as the “Hall Effect.” This, they say, makes proper placement of the magnet a crucial part of therapy.)
It remains to be seen whether either of these theories is valid. One fact, however, is certain: Magnets will not cure the underlying cause of muscle or joint pain, and once the devices are removed, the pain may return.
Stress. Some proponents say that a negative magnetic field applied to the top of the head has a calming, sleep-inducing effect. Since stress is a factor in a wide range of ailments, they say the therapy can be beneficial as an adjunct in virtually any circumstance. (The treatments cannot, however, be relied on to remedy the problem.)
Infections. A few advocates of magnetic therapy go so far as to say that negative magnetic fields can destroy bacteria, fungal and viral infections. However, there’s no definitive proof of such an effect, and mainstream physicians warn against any attempt to substitute magnets for traditional antibiotics.
Central Nervous System Disorders. Some magnetic therapy practitioners have reported that placing small ceramic neodymium or iron oxide magnets upon patients’ heads can relieve seizures, panic attacks, and hallucinations without disturbing mental alertness. There have been no formal clinical trials, however, to validate this contention.
Because magnetic therapy is a noninvasive, drug-free form of treatment, physicians who prescribe it claim it’s one of the safest long-term remedies available–much more effective, they say, than aspirin or other over-the-counter medications. Fans of this therapy even argue that treatment outcomes are more predictable than most traditional approaches.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
Anyone with a cardiac pacemaker or defibrillator should completely avoid magnetic fields. It’s also wise to forego this type of therapy during pregnancy. If you find that you have an allergy to the metal in the magnets, use only devices encased in hypoallergenic plastic.
What Side Effects May Occur?
Side effects are generally considered unlikely. However, some practitioners have reported slight cases of dizziness when magnetic therapy devices were used near a carotid artery (the carotids are the two main arteries in the neck.) Feelings of light-headedness have also been reported when the devices were used for more than 24 hours.
Some patients experience an increase in the intensity of the pain during the first few treatments; others notice a warming sensation due to expansion of the tiny blood vessels in the area over which the device is placed. The most common complaint, however, is a skin rash or irritation that often develops from the adhesive used to attach the magnets to the skin. To alleviate this discomfort, many physicians recommend protective barrier products that can be applied to the skin prior to the tape. Vitamin E creams can also be used to soothe skin irritated by adhesives.
Practitioners of this form of therapy recommend a number of additional precautions:
– Never use a magnetic bed for more than eight hours.
– Wait at least 60 minutes after meals before applying magnets to the abdomen. Earlier application is said to interfere with normal contractions in the digestive tract.
– Remember that the magnetic devices will stick to other metal products, possibly causing injury. Be cautious, for example, when removing a pan from the stove while wearing a device on your wrist.
– Be careful to keep the devices away from anyone wearing a pacemaker or defibrillator.
How to Choose a Therapist
There are no training programs in this form of therapy, and no certification or credentials for its practitioners. To assure yourself of competent care, your best course is to seek a physician skilled in pain management. Such doctors can provide a range of treatment options, including psychological and physical rehabilitation once the pain is under control.
Although the treatments are usually administered at home, you’ll need the advice of an experienced practitioner when starting therapy, since proper placement of the magnets is considered very important. It’s also best to remain under the supervision of a qualified health care professional until your condition has resolved.
See a Conventional Doctor If…
Even its advocates do not recommend magnetic therapy for immune system disorders, digestive problems, fevers, kidney failure, liver failure, impotence, or any life threatening disorder. In fact, whatever the problem, your best course is to seek conventional diagnosis and treatment first, seeking symptomatic relief through magnetic therapy only if other alternatives fail.
Remember, for relief of pain you now have an astonishing array of possibilities at your disposal, ranging from conventional medications to body work, acupuncture, hypnosis, and biofeedback. With so many promising options to be tried, magnetic field therapy can safely be considered a last resort.