Stephen Holt, M.D.

It is difficult to find a serious sports enthusiast who has not tried magnetic therapy for their bone and joint discomfort. This phenomenon is the “tip of the iceberg” as scientists and health care professionals acknowledge increasingly the healing properties of the natural force of magnetism for a variety of disease states. Simple fixed magnets used as jewelry, in garments, as sole inserts or in mattresses are used by more than 100 million people on a worldwide basis. More recently, simple electrical devices that generate electromagnetic fields (EMF) have become available for use in the treatment of several conditions. More complex medical devices that generate EMF are found increasingly in doctors’ offices.
In spite of this widespread interest in the medical application of magnetic treatments, organizations that regulate the use of these devices (such as the FDA) have not permitted substantive medical claims, with the exception that EMF is approved for the acceleration of “difficult to heal,” bone fractures. Clearly, a large proportion of the general public and a significant segment of the scientific community believe that magnetic therapy affords great promise as a versatile and effective treatment for a number of illnesses.

Electricity and magnetism are closely related physical forces that occur naturally in our solar system. Magnetic fields occur as a result of the flow of electricity and everyone is exposed to EMF of different intensity and physical characteristics everyday. Electricity and magnetism are intimately related.

The simplest type of magnet is a bar magnet where the magnetic field is generated as a consequence of particles called electrons that spin around central particles (nuclei) of atoms. Many atoms are present in metallic elements and when these atoms are “lined up” in the same direction, a natural magnetic force is generated. Magnetism resulting from electricity (electrons moving through a wire) will occur at the same frequency as the electric current that is flowing through the wire. In simple terms, the earth is a huge magnet with lots of little magnets. Body tissues contain cells which have electrical activity which must be associated with a generation of magnetic fields or which can be influenced by the application of magnetic fields. Thus, the body and its cells are “wrapped up” in magnetic fields. These are some of the basic principles that give a lay person an understanding that magnetic fields can exert important effects on body tissues and in turn on the complicated chemical reactions that occur in tissues. These reactions have associated physical phenomena including the generation of electricity and therefore, magnetism!

Magnetic forces that are used on medicine can be delivered by a variety of devices ranging from simple stationary magnets or generators that make EMF. In order for magnetic forces to affect body tissue, they have to penetrate the tissue and ideally need to be moving. Some of the more effective devices are fixed magnets that can be moved across the body or EMF generators that can move the magnetic field by pulsation into the body.

The strength of a magnetic field falls off rapidly as the source of the magnetic field is moved away from the object in question. Therefore, the penetration of magnetic fields into the body is a complex matter involving several factors such as the design and power output of the magnetic device, as well as its positioning on the body. It should be recognized that many stationary magnets used in garments, mattresses or pillows are either ineffective or inefficient for medical treatment as a consequence of their lack of strength, ability to penetrate tissues or their positioning on the body.

Scientists and historians have argued about the derivation of the word “magnet”. Reference is made to magnetic forces in many ancient civilizations but the name magnet is probably derived from the word “Magnesia” which is a region in ancient Greece. The history of the use of magnets in medical therapy is very exciting. Queen Cleopatra from Egypt is alleged to have worn a magnet on her forehead to maintain her beauty and prevent aging. A Greek shepherd (Magnes) is said to have worn magnets in his sandals to combat fatigue that he experienced during walking long distances. In the Middle Ages, the spin of a magnet was thought to spot the adulteress! With the exception of the latter purpose, magnets are used for these very reasons in modern medicine.
In the mid part of the 19th century “magnet mania” swept through Europe. Magnetic therapy was popularized by Anton Mesmer who developed “mesmerism,” which is now known as hypnotism. In fact, Dr. Mesmer used magnets to enhance his own belief that he had “animal magnetism.” Anton Mesmer was discredited by the monarchy in France, in part, as a result of criticism received from Benjamin Franklin, who was a better scientist than he was a politician, in my opinion. It is interesting that in 1895, Dr. Daniel David Palmer, the father of chiropractic medicine, gave up his practice of “mesmerism” and “magnetic healing” to develop his new form of medicine that focused on the spine as “the root of all evil.” It is ironic that some of the widest applications of magnetic healing have been made by chiropractors in recent times. The “medical wheel” continues to turn and nothing appears to be new in medicine.

Skepticism about the benefit of magnetism in medical treatment is common among practitioners of conventional medicine but this trend is changing. When I have discussed magnetic therapy with many of my own colleagues, they have offered me psychiatric help. I do not entirely reject their skepticism which has been fueled by marketing propaganda that carries expletive claims for the medical benefit of many types of magnetic devices that may not work. On the one hand, “wacko” healers claim a panacea benefit for magnetic healing whereas, on the other, the intransigent medical practitioner may reject magnetic therapy “out of hand,” without due consideration for the ever increasing body of evidence that magnets may have a lot to offer in the treatment of some diseases.
At a recent health exposition meeting in New York in 1998, I had the opportunity of testing ten fixed magnetic devices and found that only one came close to the stated specifications and four out of the ten (40%) did not even register a magnetic field! I believe the natural force of magnetism has great promise as a complementary medical option, but with all “new innovations,” some individuals may take advantage of this interest by selling rubbish. There is a great need for “caveat empeator” (let the buyer beware) when it comes to magnets. I hope I can shed some light on this issue in this article so that an interested party would not be “duped” when they are offered a potentially useful healing magnetic device.

I do not suggest that medical therapy using fixed magnetic devices is totally without merit, but few studies exist about their effectiveness in treatment. Despite this knowledge, the vast majority of magnetic devices in use are fixed magnets. It is quite common to meet the “weekend warrior” (e.g. the avid golfer) who is adorned with magnetic jewelry. A body of opinion has suggested that fixed magnets work only by a placebo effect (like a sugar pill) but there are some controlled studies that imply benefit in pain treatment. Most fixed magnets are purchased through multi-level marketing companies who have been criticized for unscrupulous sales techniques. Such companies have not shown a commitment to do meaningful research and “experts” have questioned the use of many of these magnetic devices. Indeed, many of these magnetic devices have very little ability to penetrate body tissues. A magnet has a north and a south pole and by convention the North Pole is known as the negative end of the magnet. We have Benjamin Franklin to thank again for this arbitrary labeling of magnets. Modern concepts of magnetic therapy imply that the use of a predominant, North Pole (negative end of a magnet) is better than the use of a bipolar magnet (both north and South Pole) or a south pole only. It must be realized from the laws of physics that a magnet with a pure north pole does not exist but one can have a device that has a dominant delivery of north or South Pole type magnetic fields.
In contrast to the questionable evidence to the effectiveness of fixed or permanent magnets, considerable evidence has appeared in the medical literature that EMF delivered in specific ways (especially dominant North Pole) can result in beneficial treatment effects. I believe that EMF delivered at a low frequency in a pulsed manner from a direct current source is much more effective for treatment than a fixed magnetic device. There are several reasons for this statement. Generators of EMF can be set to give the desired strength of magnetic field, with an optimum frequency in an efficient manner. This magnetic force is moving whereas the force from a fixed magnet does not move unless the magnet is manually drawn across the body.

Scientists and healers have applied magnetic fields in a variety of ways and the treatment techniques have resulted from a combination of personal experiences, trial and error, and, in some cases, scientific study of the outcome of treatment. Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines on the placement of magnetic devices for each type of disease state. Some healers have preferred to apply magnets to acupuncture points for general effects on different organs of the body or some have applied them locally to the affected area of the body. I believe that some of the more credible results in treatment have occurred as a consequence of the direct application of EMF (dominant north pole) applied to the affected area (e.g. the lower back for back pain) in combination with the application of magnetism to site of the body where pain may be referred (e.g. pain in the hip as a consequence of arthritis in the knee).
Some health care givers advise permanent positioning of magnets on the body whereas others use intermittent magnetic field therapy with devices that produce focused and strong magnetic fields. There is no right or wrong way except to mention that most treatment with magnets is a process of “trial and error” to some degree and persistence with therapy is regarded by experienced users as the key to success. I do not believe that a magnet should be used in pregnancy, even though it is believed that magnetic forces do not affect pregnancy or the unborn child. However, anybody who wears a cardiac pacemaker or a medical device that emits an electric signal to support a body function must not use magnetic treatment for fear of interrupting the function of the life-saving device with which they have been fitted. It is clear that much more research is required to define the ideal circumstances of delivery of magnetic fields for the treatment of a variety of diseases.

All human tissue vibrates with a low frequency (between 7.5 and 14 Hertz, cycles per second, plus or minus 5 Hertz or so) and this frequency has been recommended for the output of EMF from newer magnetic treatment. This output of EMF has been reported to show startling benefits in therapy. I believe that the optimal EMF device is one that produces predominantly North Pole magnetic energy in a pulsed manner (moving) at the frequency of tissue vibrations. These types of EMF devices become available in a portable format. The generator in these devices is about the size of a small cassette recorder and attached to the generator is a flat plate magnet that can be taped to the skin. The generator is worn with a small clip on the clothing. These portable EMF devices are, in my opinion, the most effective and versatile devices for magnetic therapy that offer convenience and effectiveness.

On average, a fixed magnetic device can vary in cost from $10 to about $150, but these devices carry little guarantee that they will deliver, effective magnetic field therapy. Portable EMF devices sell for between $200 and $400 but they often come with a guarantee that the EMF is reasonably standardized and there is much more chance of compliance because the device can be worn in a comfortable and unobtrusive manner. There are EMF devices that have been sold in eastern Asia for which claims, including the cure of cancer, have been made but not, substantiated. One such device is a heavy articulated group of coils that form a “girdle” that can be worn around the neck, around a limb, or placed flat on the body at the desired site of application of a magnetic field. These devices are expensive and, in my opinion, have little to offer over the simpler, less expensive, more practical and effective portable EMF devices. The larger device works off main electricity, like a household appliance, and the articulated “girdle” vibrates and produces an unpleasant noise which interferes with rest or sleep. Since many people will elect to apply magnetic therapy during sleep, this cumbersome electrical appliance will interfere with a patient’s use of the device, in my opinion.

Very strong magnetic fields should not be self-administered. The use of powerful devices that work from main electricity power sources are, in my opinion, only suitable for use in a controlled environment, such as a doctor’s office. In summary, the new portable EMF devices are the most suitable way to go and represent a reasonable compromise between expensive, cumbersome gadgets and fixed magnets with dubious effectiveness. A consumer is advised to obtain professional advice when purchasing a magnetic mattress and such advice is best independent, not given by the salesperson. Remember, north poles seem to be healing in nature. Some people think south poles or magnetic fields applied improperly could be non-healing or perhaps harmful?

One could write a lengthy book on the vast array of diseases that may have responded to magnetic therapy. In fact, new books are emerging every couple of months on the applications of magnets in disease treatment. Magnet therapy seems to enjoy most success as a pain cure and perhaps, as a reliever of inflammation in individuals who have arthritis or injuries of their bones or joints. Very convincing evidence has emerged that EMF can relieve pain due to a variety of causes including stress, bone, muscle, tendon or joint injury and neuropathic (disorders of the nervous system) conditions. Some of the most convincing results of EMF are in the treatment of fibromyalgia or nonspecific muscular pains. If people doubt that magnetic therapy has entered main line medicine, they are wrong. The American Academy of Pain Management, the highly respected scientific and medical organization, has published recently studies on the relief of pain using EMF in patients with neuropathic diseases that have been resistant to standard forms of treatment, such as pain killing medicine. Several organizations have set up consumer information services for people interested in research on magnets. I recommend the service run by Dr. Larry Kopelman of Bio-Magnetics Corporation, telephone number 718-698-5958.

I am fascinated by the application of magnetic field therapy in the treatment of neurological disease such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease. Magnetism can accelerate wound healing and it has been used successfully in complex conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I see magnetic field therapy as a natural progression of transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS) in some circumstances. Complex medical treatments with equally complex names such as cranioelectrical, electromagnetic stimulation (CEES) have emerged with evidence of benefit. How magnetic therapy works? remains unanswered in many circumstances.

Magnetic fields are known to alter cellular metabolism, cause hormone secretions in the body and affect electrical impulses in the nerves and brain. It is time for us to reject our skepticism and look more closely at the promise that EMF offers for the treatment for many diseases which remain unresponsive to existing, conventional medical options. The natural force in magnetism was created for some reason. It is amazing that we have not discovered more about this natural force given our centuries of preoccupation with remedies of natural origin.

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