What is Magnetic Therapy?
Magnet therapy, or magnotherapy is an alternative medicine practice. Practitioners believe that magnetostatic fields on certain body parts can have health benefits. Some feel that the magnet orientation also matters. There are many magnetic therapy products that are sold, such as magnetic therapy bracelets and other jewelry, straps for the back, wrists, ankles and knees, mattresses, shoe insoles, blankets, creams, supplements, and more. It is believed that magnets “might improve blood flow in underlying tissues”, and others feel that magnets can “restore the body’s hypothetical ‘electromagnetic energy balance’”. The devices are generally considered to be safe, but there has been insufficient research into efficacy; therefore, patients should not avoid or delay other treatments or diagnoses. The United States FDA “regulations prohibit marketing any magnet therapy product using medical claims”.1 People wear the magnets for a variety of conditions, for minutes or weeks. Proponents feel that the “negative magnetic fields… stimulate metabolism, increase the amount of oxygen available to cells, and create a less acidic environment”.2 Some people use magnetic resonance therapy (MRT) to treat musculoskeletal conditions. Patients are put under a special machine “1 hour every day for 9 days”, and the treatment is said to be “very relaxing”. MRT is claimed to have a “success rate of about 75%”.3
Conditions Treated and Concerns
Magnet therapy is commonly used for cancer, arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, circulatory disorders, fibromyalgia, immune dysfunction, inflammation, infection, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, muscle pain, sciatica, stress, and to prolong life. There have been “anecdotal reports of healing”.4 Some people use magnet therapy for pain. Using magnets for pain relief can be problematic if a patient uses this therapy instead of another, proven treatment. There is not, at this point, “scientific evidence” of magnets relieving pain. The concerns are greater for patients with pacemakers and insulin pumps, since magnets could cause interference with these devices. Otherwise, magnets are considered safe. The magnets come in different strengths, measured as “gauss (G) or, alternatively, units called tesla (T)”. Those used in pain relief range are claimed to be “300 to 5,000 G—many times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field”, but they are weaker than MRI machine magnets “15,000 G or higher”. There have been some preliminary studies about magnets for pain, and the results are mixed; unfortunately, “many studies have not been of high quality”, with too few people participating, inadequate controls, or lasting for too short of a period.5 In some small studies, though, magnets have been found to reduce leg and osteoarthritis knee pain and to decrease diabetic neuropathy symptoms, as well as to treat other conditions.6
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Another way to use magnets in treatment is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which is “noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression”. An electromagnetic coil is placed near the forehead to deliver a pulse “that stimulates nerve cells in the region of your brain involved in mood control and depression”. People with depression have decreased activity in certain regions of the brain, so it is believed that TMS can activate those regions. Since the treatment involves “repetitive magnetic pulses…it’s called repetitive TMS or rTMS”.7 This type of therapy involves 20 or 30 sessions, as 3-5 treatments/week, for up to 6 weeks. It is an expensive therapy, but for the “estimated 30 percent to 50 percent of people with depression who don’t respond sufficiently to antidepressant medications”, it is thought to be a “promising treatment alternative”. While some of these patients may have been treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in the past, the short seizures from that therapy can cause memory loss and confusion, and it has to be performed under anesthesia. Patients receiving TMS are awake, and they can drive themselves home, with minimal side effects, other than “headache and muscle soreness”. A neurologist/psychiatrist, Mark George, MD, had been looking at TMS for treating depression since the 1990s. He felt that the “gentler electrical currents” (versus ECT seizures) could “be effective if they were delivered repeatedly so that the “brain circuits” could be exercised. More recently, it appears to “TMS may be more effective than the initial trials suggested”. Unlike those in clinical trials, patients in the “real world” can “continue taking medications…and they can see their therapists whenever they want”. In 2012, it was found that 58% of patients over 42 TMS clinics had shown improvement, with “37% who achieved full remission”.8 The FDA had approved rTMS since 2008 for depression, and it is being studied for use in other conditions, “such as schizophrenia, pain, stroke, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).” Studies are also being done to evaluate the persistence of the therapeutic effect. Other countries that have approved this therapy for depression include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, and the European Union.9