Can magnets alleviate pain?

Okay, I am unfortunately unable to cite the appropriate literature for this (although I know it is there). However, I have found a study that seems to give the idea of magnetic therapy a little more credence.

According to this fellow, it seems that the factor which is of therapeutic benefit is magnetic flux, with the result that an effective device should be a compound magnet with north and south poles placed in opposing directions like so:


The aim of this is, as I noted, to create areas of strong flux.

The article actually has quite a reasonable theory as to how it works - he suggests that it is a simple case of the magnets interfering with the flow of current in the Axon of the nerve. He says that you don’t have to totally disrupt it all - if you disrupt one or two nerve fibres, you seem to get a “bad data” thing happening in the brain. He claims to have had some good results treating migraines and arthritis.


Welcome to the SDMB, and thank thee for posting thy comment.
Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the Straight Dope web site.
To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in thy post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
Can magnets alleviate pain? (18-Jun-1999)

moderator, «Comments on Cecil’s Columns»

My apologies, John (Johno?), but magnet therapy is crap at best. I’m not basing this on Cecil’s column, but on my own investigative research into the subject. The claims practitioners use as to why the therapy is beneficial don’t stand up to actual science (Cecil does say that much).
I could go on about it if you’re curious, but I’d remind you that ANY research into pain is difficult, because 1. Pain is subjective, 2. the Placebo Effect, and 3. Pain is not a constant- it can increase or decrease by the day or hour for no apparent reason, and a decrease in pain would not mean a patient is getting better in any other sense. --Marley

JohnoHughes, Here are some links for you to read:

Sorry, John, but throwing around jargon does not mean the terms are understood by the person using them.

Magnetic flux is a measure of the magnetic strength, using imaginary lines to represent the field strength and direction. The field lines flow from North to South. A regular bar magnet has the following pattern of field lines:

You can see the field lines flow in closed loops from the N to the S around the outside of the magnet. The closer the lines, the stronger the field. Note this is a cross sectional view, and the lines are not planar. Rather, the field forms a torus (donut) around the bar magnet.

What happens if you put two bar magnets next to each other, like you allude to?

The field lines provide a closed path loop between the two magnets on the side between the magnets. This does not increase the magnetic field strength, merely changes the field pattern.

Anyway, this is all really irrelevant. Consider that MRI uses very strong magnetic fields to image body tissues. This is done with no observed effects on the patients’ health. If magnets strong enough to lift cars have no effect on health, do you think kitchen refrigerator magnets will have an effect?

Extremely powerful therapeutic magnets developed by a medical physician and backed by scientific research at Vanderbilt University do in fact exist and are currently available to the public without a prescription. Though they do work, the precise mechanism of action of these patented, specially designed magnets is still admittedly unclear. I have used them on myself, my wife and my aged arthritic parents, with extremely noticeable success. This is called “empirical” or “anecdotal” evidence of effectiveness. When the subjective experience of pain is reduced or eliminated altogether by the application of a certain form of therapy, that is generally all the proof which is required by those particular subjects, who are the ones that matter most since they were suffering. Better still, the therapy is 100% safe: There is zero risk of overdose, no side effects whatsoever, no tolerance phenomenon, and zero risk of dependency–which cannot be said of many other modalities for pain control which have medical acceptance and better understood mechanisms of action, including aspirin. The fact is, patients who for the first time in months are finally relieved of pain when nothing else worked don’t look at the doctor and demand to see the research. Then, when added to a growing body of similar reports from thousands of users, the empirical evidence becomes impossible (for the scientifically open-minded) to ignore.

Dr. Marley may disagree, as his own “investigative research” has yielded a diagnosis of “crap”. However, for those physicians who have not yet determined in their own minds that magnetic therapy is not possible:

I use it on myself. And I don’t care if it is a placebo effect or it really works. But the stuff sold by the usual quacks (Nikken) substantially reduces my back pain when I use it.

Hmm. I wonder- would the work I did be “investigative research” in quotes if I’d confirmed your opinion?
“Crap” was intended to be glib, but anyway, I’ll press on a bit.
First off, if we accept something as truth based solely on empirical/anecdotal evidence, then aliens crash-landed in Roswell in 1947 and Loch Ness is frequented by a monster. If magnetic therapy works, it needs to prove that it works. The fact is that pain is a very subjective thing- it can come and go depending on the expectation of relief, and sometimes it decreases or increases for no apparent reason. Look at faith-healing: ‘miraculous’ things happen, by and large because people expect to be cured. But rarely are any kind of long-term results achieved, and there is danger that people seeking this kind of cure can sustain further injury.
The definitive study on magnetic therapy has not yet been conducted. I admit that freely, and I know more work needs to be done. But many of that have been done so far have refuted its effectiveness, and the ones that supported it (including perhaps the most famous one, conducted by Dr. Carlos Valbonna) are seriously flawed.
There are a number of significant problems even in the brief analysis given above. I’ve talked to different doctors, they give different explanations of how magnetic therapy works. Does it align the ions in your blood, for example? If so, what would that do? What kinds of magnets are most effective? Bi-polar? Uni-polar? If it’s uni-polar, is the North pole or South pole best? Do different ailments require different poles? Does it matter at all? How many gauss are needed to treat a given ailment?
None of these questions have been convincingly answered- different doctors and proponents of the therapy say widely varying things.
How can doctors ethically prescribe magnets to patients if they don’t know how they work? What’s the thinking there? (And how can one patent the process by which a magnet works? Electron flow is part of nature, no doctor invented it.)
The claim that magnets can produce no side effects is intriguing. It defies medical logic somewhat- any treatment can cause negative effects. Radiation therapy causes baldness and nausea; some hair restorants cause impotence. A therapy either effects the body or it doesn’t; it doesn’t really make sense that no matter how many magnets or what kind you use, nothing bad can happen.
I understand that in the treatment of pain, the patient’s comfort comes first. But DPWhite, if you are wearing a backbrace with magnets and the brace is doing all the work, why should you have to pay extra for the magnets? (Just an example.) Have you checked out Nikken at all, beyond just the magnets? They sell a massive, change-your-life plan with some cultish features that costs subscribers thousands of dollars.
There is at least one serious danger to magnetic therapy: it can keep people away from regular doctors. I know, I know, sounds like something that would only happen to suckers. Perhaps so- but when some practitioners promise that magnetic therapy can cure things like schizophrenia and cancer, there is a very real danger that people will buy into the ‘miracle cure’ wholeheartedly and shun normal treatments. The FDA, of course, has stepped in in this regard. But there are still sites that make those kinds of claims. Whether or not they really contribute anything to curing arthritis (as mentioned above), I can’t say, but regardless there seems to be no real injury being done. But that’s not always the case.

If you ever find a unipolar magnet, there are a bunch of folks in the physics community who would dearly love to take a look at it. According to the conventional models of electromagnetism, they shouldn’t exist, and even in the unconventional models where they can exist, there’s estimated to be approximately one in the entire visible Universe.

This should tell you something about the people who claim that they use unipolar magnets in their devices, and should tell you even more about the folks who say that their dipolar magnets are better than the unipolar magnets everyone else is using.

While the Loch Ness monster is certainly bunk, it doesn’t mean that the people who go on Nessie vacations don’t have a good time.

Ladies & gentlemen, ahem. Such comments carry very little weight in a SDMB forum where posters are likely to be scientists.

A little study of how science works and the scientific method of discovery & verification would be quite valuable here.

One site on the subject, although maybe not the best:

Consider this sequence of events:

[ol][li]You feel pain[/li][li]You apply a magnet[/li][li]You feel better[/ol][/li]Now, what caused you to feel better? The magnet? The passage of time? The body’s natural healing? A change in the weather? The beer you just drank?

If you say the passage of time, it is very likely, as pains do pass.

If you say the body’s natural healing, that is very likely, too, as we know the body can heal many things when left alone.

What about a change in the weather? Sure, could be; it is known that barometric pressure, humidity and temperature changes affect sensory input.

The beer? No question that ingestion of alchohol changes your perception of yourself and the world.

But a magnet? It is known that magnetic fields have little or no effect on biological processes. There is no proven, scientifically recognized method that can explain why or how a magnet modifies human pain sensors or body activities.

Of all the given possibilities, a magnet is least likely to be the cause.

And as far as being harmless, yes, applying a tiny magnetic field to your body probably is, but not if it keeps you from persuing a more medically recognized treatment.

And, hyjyljyj, if each of a thousand cases is not scientificly viable, adding them together does not increase their validity one bit. You are confusing quantity with quality.

Bravo, Musicat. I meant to mention in my last post that judging only by anecdotal evidence leaves us very open to falling for ad hoc explanations. The part about ‘Consider this sequence of events’ reminded me.

If magnets relieve pain, getting an MRI should be like demerol. Those things use some of the most powerful magnets you’re likely to meet outside a physics laboratory. Have any doctors ever claimed such an effect? Have MRI’s ever been used as therapy, rather than as dianostic tools?

You’re right. And no, MRIs haven’t (well, can’t) been used as diagnostic tools. The effects they have vanish as soon as the magnet is turned off anyway.
In my last post, I meant to say “post hoc,” not ad hoc. Whoops.

Hmm, bad day for me there. MRIs have not been, and can not be, used as THERAPEUTIC tools. There.

I understand very little about the inner workings of the computer on which I’m typing this message. Using the logic of some, that means you are not reading this right now, or that it’s merely an illusion that your mind is comprehending the words on your screen.

No need to wax didactic with the scientific method 101 stuff. One misconception often held by laypeople is that healing is an exact science like inorganic chemistry or physics. Biology degrees are sometimes called Bachelor of Arts, and you go to your doctor’s office at the Medical Arts building. There’s a fairly high degree of science-based artistry in the work of the dentist’s drill, the chiropractor’s hands, the surgeon’s fingers, the hypnotherapist’s voice. This arises in part from the fact that not all modalities work with all patients having similar conditions.

Another common misconception is that a medical doctor would never prescribe any remedy without first fully understanding the exact mechanism of action of the drug. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite often patients will report their physician saying, “We’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try that, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” Sometimes that’s the best they can do. They don’t have time (or the interest) to memorize the pharmacological kinetics of every chemical known or believed to have some effect on some patients with some illnesses.

The differences with prescribing Magna Bloc magnetic therapy for pain (after having first ruled out serious underlying causes, it should go without saying) is that there is no risk of poisoning the patient or other side effects, and the magnets can simply be returned afterwards. (Usually, however, the patients won’t give them up.) If the pain persists, then one can always move on to the more dangerous solutions, such as medically accepted drugs and surgery. The idea that one cannot help a patient relieve his or her pain non-invasively without first proving the exact physiological process by which the magnets do so is simply false.

Maybe you don’t understand it, but some other people do. Which is the difference between your computer and magnet therapy.

How do you know there are no other side effects? Short term or long term?

hyjyljyj rather intriguingly claimed:

OK, hyjyljyj, what follows is the chain of reasoning that cause people to rightly mock such a claim.

This magnetic therapy works by causing a physical effect in neurons, right? So therefore, a stronger magnet would have a stronger effect, right? So therefore a really really strong magnet would have enough of an effect to, say, damage the neuron or otherwise impair its functioning, right?

Or do you also claim that the magnets “know” how much flux to apply to the neuron so as not to cause damage…? How exactly do you explain a therapy that, medically speaking, has no risk of any side effects?

Actually, I will agree with you, hyjyljyj, that there are no side effects from magnetic therapy. This is because there are no effects of any kind from magnetic therapy.

Oh, and JohnoHughes, I have a question for you. In the OP you say:

I am confused. In the first sentence, you say you can’t cite any studies. Then in the second sentence, you say you have found a study. Which is it? If you have found a study, why can’t you cite it for us?

Don’t get me wrong, you two can believe that magnets alleviate pain until the cows come home. Believe away! But you need to do a little better than simply making a claim with zero evidence if you want anyone else to believe as well.

See, Occam’s razor is magnetic, too!

hyjyljyj said:

And “anecdotal evidence” is completely worthless medically and scientifically.

Actually, anecdotes can serve one legitimate purpose - identifying possible treatments for further investigation. But they most certainly do not constitute proof. And they do not have additive properties.

(bolding added for emphasis)

Oh please. This is tacky, rude, and irrelevant. If magnets ease pain, either do the medical study to prove it (collect the data) or determine how it works. If you can provide a viable modality - i.e. a description that is scientifically sound with everything else we know in medicine and physics - then you can go a long way to convincing people it works. Saying “It seems to work for me” is not proof.

Marley23 said:

(corrected your sentence)

I disagree. The methodology of magnets is supposed to be that exposure to the fields will lessen pain. So even if the effects didn’t last beyond the time in the chamber, they should experience the pain relief during the MRI. This does not happen. There’s no reason magnetic fields from EMs should be any different than magnetic fields from permanent magnets.

That’s actually sort of what I’m saying, Irishman- whatever magnets are supposed to do, the effects fade as soon as the MRI is turned off. So if there’s pain relief, it wouldn’t last. And like you, I’ve never heard of anyone reporting pain relief during MRIs. In fact, they have a reputation for being nerve-wracking, uncomfortable (if not necessarily painful) experiences.