Magnets for pain relief

Original article here

Cecil said (paraphrasing) that the main problem with using magnets for analgesia is that physics doesn’t say why they should help.

I would hope that, in the face of randomised placebo controlled trials of sufficient size and rigor, the scientific community would shrug and say “well, we obviously have a bit of work to do to catch up with you guys and we may yet find out what was wrong with this study which returns the results to consistency with the rest of what we know, but while we’re investigating go ahead and use them”.

To paraphrase someone else, the coolest phrase to hear from a scientist is not “Eureka!” but “That’s interesting…”

Fixed link.

I would hope that. with all the studies that have already been done, those hawking these magnetic placebos would admit that they are for the most part ineffective woo and stop scamming those that don’t know any better.

In other words, the placebo effect is interesting, but the magnets aren’t.

Whether or not magnets “work” for any one person is not really the issue. The woman feels better with them and they almost certainly have fewer side effects than any of the major pain meds, for probably about the same cash outlay.

My problem is with Cecil’s logic:

According to this logic, no-one could have died of anything before we understood what it was that killed them. Cholera. Plague. Cancers. Or does “God was ticked off” constitute sufficient logic for the time?

If my memory serves, this logic was actually proposed for the London Cholera epidemic. “We don’t know how the water could be killing them, so it must not be the well.”

“We don’t know how doctors could be spreading childbirth fever, so it must be that rich women are more delicate and poor women are more robust.”

Funny, but taking the handle off that well stopped the epidemic.


When Cecil says “no one’s proposed a plausible physiological explanation for how magnetism does its stuff on the body’s cells”, he doesn’t say that to mean “therefore they don’t work”. The conclusion he’s trying to draw is actually “therefore the placebo effect is a more likely explanation”.

I trust you can see from here how your analogy is flawed.
Powers &8^]

There’s a difference between seeing and verifying an effect, and learning and validating the effect’s cause.

When there’s a decent double-blind study that shows magnets actually do reduce pain, promote healing, or whatever - that will be step one. AFAIK, one has never been done.

Step two - should there be any need - would be to find out why magnets have the specified effect. But there is neither the need nor the basis for validating the effect until it’s proven to exist. There’s even less need to draw hysterical parallels that begin with rejecting facts.

The main problem with any woo therapy is that it hasn’t been shown to work.

For a number of woo therapies (magnets for pain relief, homeopathy, ear candling etc.) the problem is compounded by the utter lack of any coherent mechanism by which they could work (homeopathy for instance, would require rewriting the laws of physics). No evidence of efficacy + ludicrous explanation = science not taking you seriously.

If one’s aches and pains seem to be relieved by magnets, fine. What happens lots of times is that the placebo effect wears off and the user must move on to other placebo treatments. For some, it may be worth the cost and inconvenience.

You have to be careful, there. There are many cases where an effect was shown to be real or valid long before the cause was determined.

It really is all about verifying that the effect is real, and happens under specified conditions that exclude all other causes (including placebo, simple healing over time, etc.) Theories about how a process or effect works are not necessary until it’s been established that it does work.

A good hallmark of a woo therapy is that there are elaborate, nonsensical explanations of how it works, but not a proof of “does work” in sight.

Perhaps related to the question about magnetism:

A few years ago, there seemed to be a brief flurry of interest in the idea of grounding your body (such as via conductive shoes) to dissipate the harmful charges that supposedly accumulate when you wear shoes, which are generally pretty good electrical insulators.

It’s pointed out that humans typically went barefoot until recently, and were healthier and happier for it.

As an electrical engineer, I’m extremely skeptical. But I can’t absolutely rule it out. Is there any evidence that this isn’t just more quackery?

Read this sentence again.
“It’s pointed out”-by whom? What evidence was presented that barefoot people were healthier, and how what scientific study showed that barefoot people were happier? What does “until recently” mean? All in all, where is there any evidence that this isn’t unsubstantiated quackery?

Down, boy. You seem to be under the impression that I’m arguing in favor of this notion. Far from it. To repeat myself, I’m extremely skeptical. As in really, really skeptical.

I don’t know “by whom”—it’s just something someone told me, which I think they got from a book. I thought it was mildly interesting.

“Until recently” means “until humans started wearing shoes.” In evolutionary time, I suspect that is quite recently (as in thousands of years?). I thought that would have been obvious.

No, I read your post much as Czarcasm seems to have read it: “I’m as hard headed as they come but this made me think.” Common phrasing in testimonials about woo and nonsense medical fads. Using the sort of hand-waving “everyone knows that” phrasing is more of the same.

I accept that you’re skeptical about the claim. But your post reads like many “…and now I’m a true believer” comments. Check your logic when venturing into this wasteland, lest you be mistaken for another dupe.

I’ve already wasted far too much time on this nonsense. But I wonder what part of “As an electrical engineer, I’m extremely skeptical. But I can’t absolutely rule it out.” makes me look like a gullible true believer.

For the record, I don’t believe in crop circles or the health benefits of magnets. But I can’t absolutely rule them out either, can I?

Tell me-is there anything you do rule out, or is your mind forever open no matter how slim(or even nonexistent) the evidence is for a claim?

Well, if you’re going to start using non-words like ‘gullible,’ it just gets murkier. However, my advice is sincerely meant: if you’re going to take a stand on extraordinary claims, you have to watch your words carefully lest both sides use them against you.

As for “completely rule out” such things, it depends on the exact claims. Do magnets produce health benefits? Not insofar as any valid medical investigation has proved. Could some benefit from strapping magnets to your wrist, waist, ankle or neck eventually be found? Could be… but that opens exponentially the vague possibilities, into near-meaninglessness.

Which is why such all such claims, sensible on their face or not, have to be nailed down to specific results that can be evaluated for there to be any meaningful answer. Just as in your field - if I was to propose that wiring wrapped in plastic synthesized from organic soybeans made equipment “run better,” how would you begin to prove or disprove it?

The negative health effects of charge buildup on the body are well-known and understood: When you touch a doorknob, you get zapped. And I suppose that grounded shoes would probably help alleviate this problem. But at some point, you have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it.

As to the effectiveness vs. mechanism debate, there are a number of alternative medicine treatments for which there is a plausible mechanism, but for which (like for all alternative medicines, by definition) there’s no evidence they actually work. Most herbal supplements fall into this category: It’s well known that plants can contain a wide variety of pharmacologically-interesting substances, and any given plant might certainly contain an as-yet unknown compound that really is good medicine for some disease or another. But until you’ve actually tested them and determined that they do work, that’s not enough.

Many claims have never been rigorously tested, even some plausible ones. Some claims, by their very nature, can’t be rigorously tested (i.e. via double-blind, controlled experiments). That being the case, we can’t absolutely rule them all out, can we?

And I’m not talking about non-falsifiable claims of the paranormal and such.

Look, I’m a former subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer. I’m a huge Richard Dawkins fan. I mock those ridiculous “ghost hunter” TV shows. But apparently I didn’t choose my words carefully enough when casually inquiring about something I once heard. Mea frickin’ culpa.

Over & out.

If they can’t be tested to the full degree of rigor, then we test them to the greatest extent that we can, and let our scientific understanding of the processes involved guide us the rest of the way. If they can’t be tested at all, and there is no scientifically-understood process, then yes, we might as well just absolutely rule them out, because there can’t possibly be any more harm in doing so than in any other course of action.

I’m hard pressed to think of any health claim that cannot be adequately tested, even modalities that would appear to be impossible to evaluate by gold standard double blind testing.

For instance, studies of acupuncture have employed a device that makes it appear as if the needle has punctured the skin, but actually has retracted at the critical moment. Even the tester has no idea if the needle actually went in. This so-called “sham acupuncture” has fared as well as the “real thing” in published research.