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Magnet Therapy

Challenging pain-relief claims

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Magnet Therapy

Touted for their ability to reduce chronic pain, static magnets have become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Touted for their ability to reduce chronic pain, static magnets have become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Static magnets are often embedded in such things as bracelets and mattress pads. When placed against the body, the magnetic field emitted is thought to reduce pain either by increasing blood flow to affected areas or by slowing down the transmission of pain signals to the brain.

But while many arthritis-pain sufferers swear magnet therapy works, researchers say there isn’t any scientific proof to validate these claims.

Negative results

After reviewing clinical data from studies comparing the level of pain relief static magnets provided for participants suffering from such conditions as fibromyalgia, lower-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and osteoarthritis, researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth concluded that, in most cases, magnets are not an effective treatment.

The one exception was peripheral joint osteoarthritis. For this condition, magnet therapy benefited participants in three out of the four studies analyzed. While this data is encouraging, Dr. Max Pittler, lead author of the study, cautions that further research is needed.

Pittler says, “It might be a chance finding, which could be completely turned on its head when more and more rigorous trials become available.”

Dr. David Hawkins, interim vice-president for medical and scientific affairs of the Arthritis Society of Canada, agrees more evidence is needed, but says these types of studies are expensive, and with over 100 diseases and conditions classified as arthritis, it will be a long, slow process.

Hawkins says one concern is that individuals may use magnet therapy to delay seeking professional care, when early diagnosis and treatment can greatly decrease the chances of disability, especially in individuals with inflammatory forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid.

Potential exists

Kieran Cooley, an assistant professor and research fellow at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, calls magnet therapy a grey area and says that while most naturopaths would offer treatments with more supportive evidence first, treatments that have limited or contradictory evidence may also be recommended, “particularly if the potential benefit outweighs the harm.”

With magnet therapy, side effects are rare, and Cooley says, “The risk to patients is minimal, other than to their pocketbook.” Evidence-based treatments are usually aimed at decreasing inflammation and include dietary changes, acupuncture, and some herbal medications.

Though magnets may seem to attract better health for some, the evidence is just not there. 

Alternate ways to manage osteoarthritis pain

The Arthritis Society recommends:

  • Acupuncture 
  • Massage 
  • Exercise

Weight loss can also be beneficial: 

  • A 10 lb (4.5 kg) weight loss can decrease stress on the knees by 40 percent. 
  • An 11 lb (5 kg) loss can reduce the risk of needing a joint replacement by 25 percent.
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