A shorter version of this essay was published in the March/April 2002 issue of IEEE EMB Magazine :
My wife and I were invited to a free dinner, at a reputable restaurant, to hear about a new “cure” for arthritis. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be a complete cure, but it would certainly alleviate some of that crippling pain in the joints. The food was delicious and the salesman had plenty of charisma. It turned out that he was selling magnetic mattresses. Simply lie on one of his mattresses and, to tell the truth, after a month, you would feel young again. Out of an audience of 25 people, two bought magnetic mattresses. A rough calculation showed that this was sufficient to cover all expenses.
Walk into any pharmacy (a “drug” store is a more appropriate name for these places) and see the enticing display of therapeutic magnets. There are devices for top to bottom. Headgear for “headaches”; magnets for fibromyalgia (muscle, tendon, and ligament pain); specific devices for neck, back, wrist, knee, and insole pain. There are bracelets and bands. And magnetic pillows in addition to mattresses. According to Jane Brody (New York Times, 28 Nov 2000) , in the United States, over $300 million a year is spent on therapeutic magnets. It is a fairly big business.
The scientific basis seems to be simple. As everyone knows, the active ingredient in blood is the hemoglobin molecule, which contains iron, so the body is magnetic (or, at least, it should respond to magnets). Alas, this is pseudoscientific nonsense. Hemoglobin is a relatively large molecule that contains thousands of the usual atoms that constitute proteins, but only four iron atoms. The iron represents 0.4 percent, by weight, of the molecule. There is no way that a material containing only 0.4% iron can respond to magnets. Blood does not stick to a magnet any better than it does to anything else. When I recently donated blood (for an annual blood test), I took a bar magnet (the kind that holds up promissory notes on the side of a refrigerator) out of my pocket and asked the startled nurse to let me hold the magnet next to the test tube. The magnet had absolutely no effect, of course, but it did get me sent to the head of psychiatry, just down the hall. (Fortunately, she was not in at the time.)
The hemoglobin molecule reflects red light when it has captured oxygen, but it changes its shape, and reflects blue light, after the oxygen is released. Why has a relatively large molecule evolved to perform this vital task? Because it has to be able to “capture” and then “release” oxygen under relatively similar conditions. This does not explain, in any event, why therapeutic magnets relieve arthritic and fibromyalgic pain.
What about birds? Since DNA analysis now reveals that all creatures are more or less alike, and birds (supposedly) use the magnetic field of the earth for navigation, then why not humans? Can humans detect magnetic fields the way birds can? Here again there is inaccurate or incomplete information. Lots of birds fly in the vicinity of the earth’s magnetic pole (in northern Canada), but they cannot possibly use the earth’s field because, there, it points down rather than north or south. They use the sun (during daylight hours, at least). The evidence is that birds are born with migratory programs for navigation, “but so far magnetoreceptive sensory neurons have not been found in the brains of any bird species” (R. Wehner, Science, 12 Jan 2001 .
What about the “generator effect”? In a power station, strong magnets rapidly moving past copper conductors cause a voltage to be generated; this is the electricity that powers our world. A therapeutic magnet is stationary, but the blood in the tissue next to it is moving; relative motion between a magnet and an electrical conductor (blood) results in a voltage. Alas, again: the movement of blood through a body joint is “painfully” slow, with or without arthritis, so the generated voltage is minuscule. Besides, the energy has to come from the movement of blood, so if there is an appreciable effect, it would only slow the blood down, thus countering one of the myths—that magnets improve circulation.
Some of the manufacturers of therapeutic magnets are honest enough to try to find a valid scientific explanation. Even if blood responded to the magnet, why should this reduce pain signals that originate, after all, in the nervous system? One conjecture is that the magnet works by closing ion gates of nerve cells, thereby interfering with the generation of nerve signals. But if the ion gates do not contain an appreciable amount of iron, how can they close in the presence of a magnetic field? And why would only pain receptor gates become closed? Why wouldn’t a general numbness and paralysis accompany each magnet?
There are some simple life forms that use internal magnets for navigation, but humans (including those who are attracted to bars) seem to be negligibly magnetic. How, then, can magnets alleviate so many health problems? Is it possible that we are spending $300 million a year on a placebo effect? It was disappointing for me to learn that Brody, one of my favorite science writers, admits to wearing magnets. I like to quote her article because this is exactly how my neighbors defend their devotion to magnets: “… I also began wearing magnetic knee sleeves when I played tennis and sometimes for my daily three-mile walk. In addition to being a lot more comfortable than those Neoprene knee braces I used to wear, the magnetic sleeves seem to have done more to minimize my discomfort during knee-stressing activities.” But unlike my neighbors, who are not science writers, Brody adds a caveat: “… is it the magnets or wishful thinking that is helping? Although magnets have been used for thousands of years for pain relief, neither I nor medical science can as yet be certain that the magnets are actually responsible for alleviating my symptoms or anyone else’s symptoms.”
The magnet literature suggests that magnets work: you pay $15 to $1200 for a magnet, and you HAVE to feel better. Besides, magnets can do no harm (unless you are wearing a pacemaker or any other implant that contains iron), in contrast with the side effects inevitably associated with drugs. No overdose is possible either, because with zero effect you can wear them anywhere and for any length of time.
Various studies are under way, with manufacturers hoping, of course, for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Thus far, exactly the opposite has happened: “The Consumer Justice Center … filed a lawsuit on August 8, 2000, for false advertising and consumer fraud against Florsheim Group, Inc. for selling its MagneForce shoes as a pain remedy” (K. Christopher, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 2001, pg. 8) .
Until solid evidence is unearthed as to how it increases blood flow and/or decreases pain signals, magnet therapy should be viewed as mostly a placebo effect. “Mostly” because there is a slight chance that evidence will surface. In the meantime, if people think that a magnetic personality will help, they should wear a magnet — I would go for the $15 variety.
The following four items are in connection with a column by Carolyn Dixon in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. It is painful for me to include this unscientific viewpoint, but it is essential if we are to communicate, in this never-ending war against ignorance, with the people who believe in magnets, rabbit’s feet, scarabs, and the like. It is important to know what people like Dixon and nurse Maurer think if we are to ever influence their thoughts. So please forgive me:
ITEM 1: “Magnets: A Polarizing Issue,” in her Insights Into Health column, 4 Oct 2002 :
As children playing with magnets, we wouldn’t have thought that they could also be used for healing. Their medical benefits have been studied and researched for more than 30 years, and claims for their positive effects have included improvement of eyesight and making drinking water more biologically friendly to the body.
In 1954 Linus Pauling received a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the magnetic properties of hemoglobin that allow iron in our blood to carry oxygen.
All cells in the body have receptors (identifiers, like a lock and key) and carry electrical charges: outside positive, inside negative. Disease disrupts the cell membranes, receptors and charges.
Magnet therapy may help re-establish balance by inducing changes that can reduce inflammation and fluid build-up, increase blood circulation, accelerate healing, remove toxins, relax muscles, relieve pain by stimulating the release of endorphins, and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation or slowing down.
Magnets most often have been used for the treatment of chronic pain, but also can be used to treat some forms of vascular (artherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease, femoral artery surgery), gynecological (endometriosis, post-partum uterine involution, post-partum breast engorgement) and rheumatologic (arthritis pain) disorders, as well as osteoarthritis and chondritis (cartilage inflammation). They have also been used in the treatment of infected skin wounds, fractures and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Where and how magnets are placed, the dosage (frequency, measured in Hertz), duration and frequency of treatment are important and depend on the condition being treated and the judgment of the practitioner. Practitioners are usually chiropractors, physical therapists and some health-care providers.
It is generally recommended that the magnet not be worn for more than two hours at a time (two times per day) and generally not more than 20 exposures are necessary to determine whether the magnetic therapy is going to be effective.
Once the condition for which magnet therapy is being used has been relieved, the therapy should be stopped and used only intermittently for recurrence of the condition.
If magnet therapy has been used for an extended time, it should be discontinued gradually to avoid sudden fluid changes in the tissues, and exacerbations and symptoms, such as changes in blood pressure.
Magnet therapy can be used in conjunction with physical therapy, massage, surgery, and rehabilitation programs and with a wide range of conditions.
Magnets are generally purchased by the practitioner, and costs may range from $15 to $1200.
In animal studies, overexposure to magnets produced pathological changes in tissues. The amount of tissue exposed appears to have an effect on the general response of the rest of the body as well. There can be an increase in the inflammatory response (which may worsen a present condition) to the area being treated, and blood pressure can drop.
Magnets should never be used in pregnancy, malignancies, active tuberculosis, acute viral diseases, myasthenia gravis, hyperthyroidism, adrenal, pituitary dysfunction, psychoses or by anyone wearing a mechanical medical device that is battery-operated (pacemaker or defibrillator).
Caution should be exercised in cases of excessive menstruation, severe systemic fungal infection, severe atherosclerosis, seizure disorders, low blood pressure or severe hypertension.
Magnets also can cause electronic equipment, especially computers, to malfunction. While magnetic therapy has benefits, its applications are still being studied and investigated. Magnetic therapy has not been approved by the FDA.
In 1994, Dr. Carlos Vallbona, former chairman of the Department of Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, became a proponent of the use of magnets after they cured his knee pain.
For more information on magnet therapy visit www.magnetcity.com/theory.htm or send for Magnetic Therapy in Eastern Europe, A Summary of 30 Years of Research (1999) by Jiri Jerabek, former director of National Institute of Public Health and William Pawluk, M.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (609) 267-9085.
Carolyn Dixon is a Sarasota obstetrician-gynecologist and holistic practitioner whose treatments may include alternative as well as “traditional” forms of healing. Her weekly column on holistic healing is strictly informational, and is not intended as a recommendation or advice. The views expressed may not be shared by other members of the medical community, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.
ITEM 2: In response to Dixon’s column, I wrote the following letter, which was published by the Herald-Tribune on 12 Oct 1999, under their heading:
“Magnet therapy a costly placebo”
It is embarrassing to read in my hometown newspaper, which is put out by well-informed people, of the beneficial health effects of magnets. I am referring to “Magnets: A polarizing issue,” by Carolyn Dixon, in the Oct. 4 Herald-Tribune.
A stationary magnet has absolutely no interaction with bodily fluids. The hemoglobin in the blood is not analogous to a tiny magnet; very few materials that contain iron atoms can be magnetized. Blood does not stick to a magnet any better than it does to anything else.
How, then, can magnets alleviate so many health problems? They are all placebo effects. The literature, such as Dixon’s column, suggests that magnets work; pay $15 to $1200 for a magnet, and you have to feel better. Besides, magnets can do no harm, in contrast with the side effects inevitably associated with drugs. No overdose is possible, either. And, with zero effect, you can wear them anywhere and for any length of time.
Nevertheless, it is my duty, as a scientist, to say that the use of magnets is pseudoscientific nonsense. Of course, magnetic “therapy” will never be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, if people think that a magnetic personality will help, they should wear a magnet – but I would go for the $15 variety.
Sid Deutsch, PhD., Sarasota
ITEM 3: I received the following letter, dated 20 October 1999:
To: Dr. Sid Deutsch, PhD
From: Jane Maurer, RN
In response to your editorial note on magnet therapy, I am impelled to inform you of your dark ages narrow-mindedness. Please refer to William Philpott, MD and his numerous books on biomagnetic therapy. There are many noted scientists who have devoted years of study researching the therapeutic effects of magnets. Almost all of them have concluded that negative charged, counter clockwise spin magnets have healing effects on the body.
By the way, what is your PhD in? That, in itself does not qualify you to determine the efficacy of any given product.
Get off your high horse and open your eyes and mind to the truth. We are no longer living in the dark ages.
Global Health Products.com
North Pole Magnets
ITEM 4: I sent the following letter, dated 1 November 1999:
Bradenton, FL 34205
Dear Jane Maurer:
In response to your letter of 20 October:
Your letter is unfair to me. As you must know, there are people who make a very comfortable living making and selling useless remedies to gullible people, some of them desperate, who suffer from all kinds of ailments. I did not imply that magnet therapy is useless, only that “a stationary magnet has absolutely no interaction with bodily fluids.” I agree with you that magnets alleviate many health problems, but I maintain that “they are all placebo effects,” so buy the least expensive variety. But it is obvious that I will not convince you, and you won’t convince me, so there is no point to continuing this dialogue.
My PhD is in Electrical Engineering, and I have worked as a Biomedical Engineer for many years.
With best wishes,
Finally, here is a bit of fascinating history taken from Michael Shermer’s column, “Mesmerized by Magnetism,” in the Scientific American :
“Scientists studying magnetic therapy would do well to read the 1784 “Report of the Commissioners Charged by the King to Examine Animal Magnetism” (reprinted in an English translation in Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 3). The report was instituted by French king Louis XVI and conducted by Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier to experimentally test the claims of German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, discoverer of “animal magnetism.” Mesmer reasoned that just as an invisible force of magnetism draws iron shavings to a lodestone, so does an invisible force of animal magnetism flow through living beings.
The commission concluded that “nothing proves the existence of Animal-magnetism fluid; that this fluid with no existence is therefore without utility; that the violent effects observed at the group treatment belong to touching, to the imagination set in action & to this involuntary imitation that brings us in spite of ourselves to repeat that which strikes our senses.” In other words, the effect is mental, not magnetic.
 Sid Deutsch, “Point of View – How to Acquire a Magnetic Personality,” IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine, Mar/Apr 2002.
 Jane Brody, “Less Pain: Is It in the Magnets or the Mind?,” New York Times Science Times, 28 Nov 2000.
 Rudiger Wehner, “Bird Navigation – Computing Orthodromes,” Science, 12 Jan 2001.
 Kevin Christopher, “Are Magnetic Shoes Starting to Attract Lawsuits?,” Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 2001.
 Carolyn Dixon, “Magnets: A Polarizing Issue,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 4 Oct 2002.
 Michael Shermer, “Mesmerized by Magnetism,” Scientific American, Nov 2002.