Magnet therapy is sometimes used in the treatment of depression, stress reduction, and other health conditions. But does it work?
Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.
Many civilizations throughout history have used magnets to treat illness. Ancient Egyptian priests and the fourth century Greek physician Hippocrates documented the use of magnets. The 15th century Swiss physician and chemist Paracelsus hypothesized that magnets may attract diseases out of the body.
In modern times, magnetic fields play an important role in Western medicine. For example, they are used in magnetic resonance imaging.
continue story below
There are many types, sizes and strengths of magnets. Magnet therapy is sometimes used by patients on their own or is administered by health care providers. Magnets have also been used on ill animals. Magnet therapy may be applied to the whole body or only to areas affected by illness. Devices may be implanted or used externally to deliver pulsed electromagnetic field therapy. Constant (static) magnets may also be used. Magnets are available as self-adhesive strips, foils, belts, jewelry, shoe inserts and mattress pads. Magnet-conditioned water is also available. Magnet wraps are sold for most body parts. Lodestones are sometimes sold as medicinal magnetic rocks.
The magnetic fields produced by static magnets are different from electromagnetic radiation and are likely have different effects on the body. Scientific evidence suggests that pulsed electromagnetic fields may help repair bone fractures that have not adequately healed after several weeks. Static magnetic fields have not been proven effective for any medical condition.
Some practitioners have theorized that magnet therapy may improve circulation, increase blood oxygen, alkalinize bodily fluids, decrease deposition of toxic materials in blood vessel walls (such as cholesterol plaques) or relax blood vessels through effects on cellular calcium channels. Other theories describe altered nerve impulses, reduced edema or fluid retention, increased endorphins, muscle relaxation, cell membrane effects or stimulation of acupoints. Some traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners suggest that magnets may affect patterns of flow of the body's life force, known as chi (qi). None of these theories has been adequately assessed by scientific research.
Scientists have studied magnet therapy for the following health problems:
Several studies report that pulsed electromagnetic fields improve healing of fractures of the long bones of the lower leg (tibia) that have failed to heal properly after several weeks. Pulsed electromagnetic fields may also be useful for fracture healing of the largest bone in the wrist (scaphoid), the foot bones (metatarsals) and the vertebrae, although there is less research in these areas. It is not clear if pulsed electromagnetic fields are equal to or better than other techniques for fracture, such as bone grafting. These procedures should be performed only by qualified specialists and should first be discussed with your health care provider.
Several small preliminary studies have been conducted using electromagnetic stimulation therapy in patients with urinary incontinence (including both stress and urge incontinence). The premise of this approach is that by seating individuals in a chair unit that incorporates a magnetic coil, electromagnetic pulses can be created, inducing contractions of pelvic floor muscles. A course of therapy may involve up to two 20-minute treatments per day over eight weeks. The available studies have not been randomized, placebo controlled, or adequately blinded, and the number of involved patients has been small. Therefore, although the initial results are promising, better quality studies are necessary before a clear conclusion can be drawn. Nonetheless, patients with persistent incontinence who have failed other approaches and who have been evaluated by a urologist may wish to pursue this approach with a qualified health care professional (who can explain the potential benefits and risks).
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Preliminary research reports that magnet therapy does not improve pain from carpal tunnel syndrome.
Diabetic foot pain
Preliminary research reports reductions in foot burning, numbness, tingling and walking-induced foot pain with the use of static magnetic shoe insoles. Despite weaknesses in the existing research, these findings are promising. Effects are reported to take three to four months to be noted. Better-quality research is necessary to make a firm conclusion.
Preliminary research suggests that magnet therapy, such as the use of magnetic sleep pads, may not be beneficial in fibromyalgia. Further studies are needed to provide a more definitive answer.
Studies of electromagnetic field therapy for multiple sclerosis symptoms have differing results. Well-designed studies are needed to determine a benefit before a conclusion can be drawn.
The results of research on electromagnetic field therapy for osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease remain inconclusive. Notably, one promising small study published in 2004 by Wolsko and others reported some benefits. Large, well-designed studies are needed before a clear conclusion can be drawn.
Magnets are used to treat many types of pain. There is early research of static magnets and pulsed electromagnetic therapy for several types of pain, but these results can only be considered preliminary. Better research is needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn. Types of pain that have been studied include muscle symptoms in post-polio patients, chronic refractory pelvic pain, chronic neck pain (using pulsed electromagnetic therapy or magnetic "necklaces"), foot pain in people with diabetes (using magnetic footpads) and chronic back pain (using permanent or harnessed bipolar magnets).
Rheumatoid arthritis pain
Initial evidence has failed to show improvements in knee pain with the use of magnet therapy. However, because of weaknesses in this research, the conclusions cannot be considered definitive.
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
Most research using magnets for tinnitus is not well designed or reported. Better studies are necessary before a recommendation can be made.