Magnets: Healing Devices or a ‘Magnetic Attraction’ to your Wallet?
(HealthDay News) – Magnets may be excellent for attaching recipes and photos to your refrigerator door, but for the most part, their healing powers have yet to be proved.
There’s no doubt that there’s a place for magnets in medicine. The magnetic resonance imaging device (MRI), for instance, has provided much more detailed imagery in some instances than CT cans or X-rays.
But claims that magnets can cure specific illnesses haven’t yet held up against scientific research. Take, for example, one of the more popular scientific assertions – that magnets can help treat foot pain. A 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), financed by a company that makes orthotic devices, found that shoe inserts containing magnets don't provide more relief for people with heel pain than regular inserts.
Yet, more and more people are turning to magnets as pain relievers, buying them in on magnetic bracelets, insoles, wrist and knee bands, back and neck braces, and even pillows and mattresses -- an estimated $500 million a year in the United States, and $5 billion worldwide.
Plantar heel pain, or plantar fasciitis, often manifests as knife-like pain in the heel area. It usually results from abnormalities in the way some people walk, placing too much stress on the heel bone and its surrounding tissues. "Heel pain and plantar fasciitis are due to the excessive rolling in of the foot which puts a strain on the plantar fascii, which is the band of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot," says Glenn Gastwirth, a podiatrist who has also served as executive director of the American Podiatric Medical Association.
"Flat insoles with or without magnets are going to be of little value," Gastwirth says. "Generally [heel pain and plantar fasciitis] are treated more effectively not by insoles but by orthotic devices that control the mechanics of the foot."
The condition can last months to years, and can also be aggravated by injury, being overweight or poorly constructed footwear.
The JAMA study was led by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. They randomly assigned 101 adults with plantar heel pain to wear shoe insoles with an active magnet or insoles with a sham magnet for at least four hours a day, four days a week for eight weeks.
While both groups reported improvements in symptoms, there were no significant differences between the groups at the end of eight weeks, the researchers concluded.
Sometimes a person will also need anti-inflammatories or other medication. "By far the most effective way to treat the condition is through the proper support and control of the foot by orthotic devices," Gastwirth says.
As for the value of magnets, some experts feel the jury is still out.
"It wasn't helpful in this study, but is it helpful for other things?" asks Todd Schlifstein, a clinical instructor of rehabilitation medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. "This is what we call musculoskeletal pain. Maybe it would be better for neuropathic pain."
But the 2003 study was merely a harbinger for the debate of the usefulness of magnets to relieve pain. A 2006 article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by experts in two divergent specialties – physics and gynecology – reinforced the opinion that there is no scientific evidence to prove that magnets can relieve pain.
"If there is any healing effect of magnets, it is apparently small since published research, both theoretical and experimental, is weighted heavily against any therapeutic benefit," wrote Leonard Finegold, a professor of physics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Dr. Bruce L. Flamm, a physician in obstetrics and gynecology at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Riverside, Calif.
Finegold said he enlisted Flamm in writing the warning "because I wanted a physician's point of view, and we had corresponded about other things."
Finegold and Flamm said they're concerned about scientifically designed, controlled studies claiming to show that magnetic therapy can provide benefit for conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.
It's almost impossible to conduct a "double-blind" study in which both the physician and the patient are unaware of who is getting the real treatment, because the presence of magnets is always obvious, they wrote.
And they worry that self-treatment with magnetic therapy "may result in an underlying medical condition being left untreated."
But Dr. Michael I. Weintraub, a clinical professor of neurology and internal medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., disagrees with that conclusion.
Weintraub, who has done extensive studies of magnetic therapy, agreed "there have been numerous bogus claims about magnetotherapy", and some items being sold to the public are worthless. But "all magnets are not equal," he said, and the proper magnet used properly for the proper period of time can be effective in some conditions.
Weintraub said he has done the kind of controlled study, which is considered the gold standard of medical research, on magnetic therapy for several conditions, including diabetic peripheral neuropathy, in which nerves gradually die. A study of 375 diabetics who wore a magnetic device for one month (with control subjects who wore a sham device) showed "benefits equal to or better than that from drugs," he said.
Yet, Flamm says he’s mostly concerned about the false claims he sees almost every day. "What we know pretty much for sure is that the claims everything they are selling on the Internet appear to be totally baseless," he said.
Finegold had financial advice for anyone thinking about buying such a device: "If you want to use a magnet, buy the cheapest. It will relieve the pain in your wallet."
On the Web
Questions about magnetic therapy for pain are answered by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
SOURCES: Glenn Gastwirth, D.P.M., American Podiatric Medical Association, Bethesda, Md.; Todd Schlifstein, D.O., clinical instructor, rehabilitation medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Sept. 17, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association ; Leonard Finegold, Ph.D, professor, physics, Drexel University, Philadelphia; Bruce L. Flamm, M.D., clinical professor, obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine and partner physician, obstetrics and gynecology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Riverside, Calif.; Michael I. Weintraub, M.D., clinical professor, neurology and internal medicine, New York Medical College, Valhalla, N.Y.; Jan. 7, 2006, British Medical Journal
Publication date: June 2007
Authors: Amanda Gardner and Ed Edelson, HealthDay Reporters
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