Magnets: Quackery, or Possible Danger?

My daughter is suffering from depression, and we took her to a psychiatrist yesterday. We went to to only female psychiatrist we could find — over an hour away, but OK. (We live in a rural area.) She had said on the phone that she often used neurofeedback, which seems to be what we called “biofeedback” in the 1970s and 80s, and I’d remembered reading some good things about that.

ETA: I’m going to refer to our daughter as “M” from now on, because “our daughter” got real unwieldy.

All three of us went in, the woman talked to us, took a brief history from M, and then, at the end of the session, asked M to lie down on what appeared to be an ordinary MD’s exam table. She explained that the bed was a magnet, and the magnetic field would open M’s blood vessels, increasing blood flow, especially through the capillaries, and therefore make her feel more relaxed.

After eight minutes of that, she said she wanted to wrap some cables around M’s stomach to create a magnetic field there. M was uncomfortable with that, so instead she put a hairnet-type thing on M’s head and velcroed four boxes about half the size of cigarette packs to the cap. Another eight minutes of magnetic field would, again, make M feel more relaxed.

Needless to say, we’re not going back.

Also needless to say, I assented (passively) to all this because I know that magnetic fields have no effect on the human body. I figured it was a waste of time, but harmless, and better than taking my daughter out mid-session, thereby (probably) causing a scene in the office.

Later, my wife told me that she was worried because she’d read (I don’t know where) that magnetic fields can have a disruptive effect on the brain, and she regretting allowing the woman to put the things on M’s head.

I know you’re not a doctor (except for those of you who are), but does anyone know of any legitimate studies that might suggest that what happened to my daughter yesterday may have — even just possibly — caused some harm?

(If it matters, she’ll turn 11 in April, so her brain is very much still developing.)

Thank you all.

Psychiatry resident here.

Think of it this way: MRI machines expose the human body to a quite powerful magnetic field, with no adverse effects. And there is no way that little mesh or those cigarette-box-sized magnets are as powerful as an MRI machine. So, most likely, no harm done.

Definite quackery, though. Is there any reason you need her to see a female psychiatrist? Maybe there’s a male psychiatrist who is not only closer, but also has the added benefit of not practicing quackery?

Transcranialmagneticstimulation(TMS) is a real therapy and a legitimate treatment for depression. However, it sounds like this “psychiatrist” was doing something entirely different. TMS requires extremely high-powered electromagnets, and uses very brief pulses of magnetic fields. Any sort magnet, permanent or electromagnetic, that can fit in a small box is orders of magnitude less powerful than TMS magnets. My best guess is that this was entirely harmless display of quackery, probably using low-strength permanent magnets that have no effect.

The explanation about opening blood vessels and promoting relaxation fits in with woo/quackery, not TMS (which is a legitimate second-line treatment for major depression).

Relaxation techniques (not involving magnets) are legitimate ancillary therapy for depression.

I would be more concerned about health insurance not paying for this shrink’s “treatment” than of any damage from what sounds like toy magnets.

Is there some place to report this person to? Because a psychiatrist treating serious depression with woo sounds outright dangerous. What if a patient committed suicide or hurt themselves, thinking they were receiving treatment when they weren’t?

I don’t like this idea one bit, and I’m sure you could report an oncologist using nothing but crystals somewhere (right?!).

(OP might not want to, but for anyone else reading…)

This particular thing that she did was probably harmless. But who knows what other woo she might try, that wouldn’t be harmless?

I do not think this doctor did anything harmful or unethical. The placebo effect is very real, and extremely strong in psychiatry. I am sure there are lots of people that this has “helped.” While I personally think it is crap and it is useless I doubt that everyone would think so.

A real psychiatrist doesn’t pull woo crap like this on the initial visit, placebo or not. Report her.

That doesn’t mean it’s ethical for a medical doctor to engage in such behavior. There are ways to investigate placebo effects within the ethical framework of controlled medical studies; experimenting on minor psychiatric patients absent any kind of supervision of review does not sound kosher to me.

It is likely she sells Kangen water machines on the side, but there is a very real chance that some of those undergoing her “treatment” would improve. I think she deserves to have no one come to her for treatment, but reporting her is totally inappropriate.

More about placebo:

As to the comment concerning payment. It is quite clear from the narrative that in this case there was no chance of the placebo working, due to the skepticism of the patient. I would feel that I had not been treated at all, and would feel absolutely no obligation to pay.

She’s uncomfortable around strangers, less so if the stranger is female.

But yeah, we’re meeting with her pediatrician tomorrow to get recommendations for male shrinks.

She doesn’t take insurance. Now we know why.

We asked for some document (my wife knows what; I don’t) yesterday, so we could submit it to our insurance company and see if they’d reimburse us (unlikely). She said, “Why don’t we let it build up for a couple of weeks, and I’ll give them all to you then?” Another — and the final — red flag.

I was very proud of my daughter. Every time the woman said, “Do you feel more relaxed?” she replied, “Not really.” I’m sure many kids would feel social pressure to tell the adult what she wanted to hear.

I suggested to my wife that we stop payment on the check. We’re still discussing it.

It is quite common for psychiatrists to not take insurance. The reimbursement to psychiatrists from insurance is very low.

Just out of curiousity, how much did she charge.

If she was charging you for an initial consultation then I would think you pay. If she was allegedly providing treatment stopping the check would be reasonable. Perhaps you should call her and explain that her fringe medical treatment made you uncomfortable, and that you will not continue it, and should not pay for the one visit. You could even explain that you were discussing the situation with others, including some physicians and say that many people were you encouraging you to report her to medical board, but that you just felt there was not a meeting of the minds, and would prefer not too.

And for the record, even REAL TMS is iffy, and would not be reimbursed by insurance. And this was not real tms.

There has been a ton of research concerning magnetism because of MRI. Surprisingly a common horseshoe magnet is about 5 mT. So a 1.0 Tesla MRI would only be 20 times as strong. But there is NO evidence that this has any deleterious effects on mammals.

I absolutely would refuse to pay. I probably also would have “made a scene” and called the quack out for the quack she is. I absolutely would not have paid a dime for her “services.”

But, your daughter wasn’t harmed by the magnets. Don’t worry about that.

$300 for the initial 90-minute session, $200 for one-hour sessions thereafter. This in a small city in western Massachusetts.

Is she a Psychologist or a Psychiatrist? Important question. If she s a Psychologist, I would simply pay for services rendered and find another. If she is in fact a Psychiatrist, then she is a Board-certified Medical Doctor, and there is absolutely no room for quackery in the profession. I would definitely report her to the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Psychiatrist. She has an M.D.

My wife is opposed to the idea of reporting her.

Total quackery.

You’re standing on the biggest magnet you’re ever going to experience, and you’ve been experiencing it every second of your life.