Proponents of magnetic healing or "magnet therapy" claim that magnetic fields have a positive physiological effect upon the circulatory system of the body, primarily aiding healing by dilating blood vessels and by pulling red blood cells (because hemoglobin contains iron) and their oxygen to infected or otherwise injured sites in the body, which supposedly stimulates healing. Another theory says that they help to align molecules in the blood stream, allowing them to flow more easily.

There is little or no scientific basis for claiming that external application of static magnetic fields is effective in treating bodily injury. Very few scientifically rigorous studies have been conducted, and of those, only one showed any statistically significant therapeutic benefit. The results of that study have not been independently confirmed and are in dispute.

The study which showed positive results was a double-blind study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. They study involved patients who had had polio as children, and used both magnets and placebos placed on the knees of these patients to test their effects on joint pain. Exposure to the magnets was very brief (only 45 minutes), and there were questions as to the design of the experiment, particularly in sample selection and in the measurement of patient response. Furthermore, the study was only a pilot study, and not complete. Two later studies conducted by the New York College of Podiatric Medicine and the VA Hospital of Prescott, Arizona conducted more complete studies on the efficacy of magnets on foot and lower back pain. Both studies found magnets had no better effect on pain than placebo.

Physically, there is little basis for believing in the efficacy of magnets for pain relief and healing of injuries. The magnets used in these devices are only slightly stronger than refrigerator magnets, which oftentimes have trouble holding more than a few sheets of paper to a metal surface. This suggests that the fields generated by these magnets barely penetrate the skin, let alone reach damaged sites within the body.

As to the claim that magnetic "alignment" of molecules somehow changes the circulatory system, consider this: physicists at the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands applied a 10 Tesla magnetic field to a frog, and managed to levitate it. Once the magnet was turned off, the frog behaved perfectly normally, and showed no apparent well- or ill-effects. A 10 Tesla field is far, far stronger than the small magnets sold by these companies, and even in the presence of that strong field, the frog experienced no noticeable physiological changes. Of course, this is not proof that there was none -- it was a physics experiment, not a biomedical one, and the frog's physiology was not tested following the experiment. However, human beings are routinely exposed to strong, penetrating magnetic fields in magnetic resonance imaging machines and, to my knowledge, patients experience no physiological changes during the imaging procedure.

Unfortunately, the producers of magnetic therapy products cite only the results of the Baylor study, and rely on anecdotal testimony or paid celebrity endorsements to make their sales. After the United States government started prosecuting manufacturers who claim specific therapeutic benefits of magnet therapy for fraud, producers have now switched to using more legally vague language, saying that their magnetic bracelets and shoe inserts "promote health, comfort, and vitality." They are still sold just about everywhere, often by otherwise reputable retailers, despite campaigns by groups like CSICOP and despite the utter lack of proven medical efficacy. Of course, there may be a therapeutic benefit from even a placebo if wearing one of these devices produces a psychosomatic effect, but the larger question is

Is it ethical to produce something knowing it has no effect, and knowing it may inhibit a patient from seeking conventional and more effective pain relief?

As always, caveat emptor.

A slightly offtopic postscript: James Randi pointed out that a manufacturer claiming to sell "unipolar magnets" should instead apply for a Nobel Prize, since the discovery a of magnetic monopole would turn the physics world on its ear. Sadly, the manufacturer never did.

Sources: pulled together from various sources, including CSICOP (, QuackWatch (,, and This rant inspired by my reading an advert for the therapeutic benefits of water composed entirely of oxygen-18 -- all for only $29.95. A steal, considering claims it can only manufacture about 60 kilos of oxygen-18 per year....

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