Magnets are popping up everywhere — in our mattresses, bracelets, shoes, belts, and more. Products that incorporate magnets are growing in number, as people in pain, increasingly disenchanted with prescription painkillers, search for alternative forms of pain relief.
The notion of using magnets for pain long pre-dates the existence of pharmaceuticals. Accounts vary, but many medical historians link magnet pain therapy to third-century Greek physicians who used magnets for pain relief. The use of magnet pain therapy continued into the Middle Ages, eventually becoming widespread in the United States after the Civil War.
How Do Magnets Offer Pain Relief?
The idea behind magnet pain therapy is that by placing magnets in close proximity to painful areas of the body, the magnets produce a magnetic field that alleviates pain. So far, there is no conclusive theory on why or how this works, but research has proposed a number of possibilities.
Some studies have shown that magnetic fields may cause changes in nerve cell function, which in turn blocks pain signals. Other theories are that magnets may offer pain relief by causing an increase in blood flow and oxygen to tissues, or that magnetic pain therapy works by balancing the death and growth of cells. Increased body temperature also may play a role in how magnets bring about pain relief.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is funding studies to determine the effects of magnets on:
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Studies elsewhere are looking at magnet therapy for all sorts of conditions. Researchers in the United Kingdom, compelled by magnet therapy’s low cost and low side-effect profile compared with other treatments for chronic musculoskeletal problems, are currently running a 70-person clinical trial to determine the effect of magnets on rheumatoid arthritis.
Magnets: Research and Review
In a review of 42 studies looking at magnet therapy applied to acupuncture points for different conditions, most reported some benefit. Findings were compelling enough that these researchers recommended further investigation into this kind of therapy, particularly for diabetes and insomnia. Increased hot flashes and skin irritation from magnet application were the only reported side effects.
But despite the numerous theories regarding how magnets offer pain relief and the research supporting their benefit, just as much research exists to the contrary. A 2007 meta-analysis of clinical trials on using permanent magnets for pain relief concluded that the evidence is not compelling enough to support their use.
Supporters of magnet pain therapy suggest that unconvincing research may be due to:
Challenges in studying magnets
Difficulty in designing a sham magnet
Unintentional effects of low-strength shams
Discrepancies about magnet strength and placement
Are Magnets Safe?
Magnets applied to the skin for pain relief are generally thought to be safe, with few reported side effects. Still, patients should consult with their health care professional about the use of magnet pain therapy, as it is not considered a viable substitute for traditional pain-relief treatments. People with unhealed wounds should avoid applying magnets to the skin. Magnet pain therapy also may be unsafe for patients with defibrillators, pacemakers, or insulin pumps because the magnets may affect how these devices function.