The Right Brain Replies:
Amazingly enough, the definitive answer is: Maybe!
While most scientists have considered that using magnetic therapy to reduce pain is quackery, a study done a few years ago shows that there MIGHT be some basis to these claims. The Skeptical Inquirer, the Brain’s favorite site for debunking myths has this to say:
“These examples and the centuries-old connection between magnets and quackery, have led many to consider modern magnetic therapy as total hokum, with the many testimonials for the success of magnetic treatments explainable by placebo effects. But the Baylor study, seemingly a careful double-blind study, has surprised many.The study was conducted by Dr. Carlos Vallbona on fifty post-polio patients at Baylor’s Institute for Rehabilitation Research in Houston. Bioflex, Inc., of Corpus Christi provided both the magnets (multipolar, circular pattern) and a set of visually identical sham magnets to serve as controls. To keep the study “double-blind” neither the patients nor the staff were informed as to which devices were active magnets, and which were shams. Before and after the forty-five-minute period of magnet therapy, the patients were asked to grade their pain on a scale from 0 to 10. The twenty nine patients with active magnets reported, on average, a significant reduction of pain (from 9.6 to 4.4), while the twenty-one patients with shams reported a much smaller average reduction (from 9.5 to 8.4). This is a substantial difference, and if the double-blind study was successfully conducted, cannot be explained by a placebo effect.
For a hardened skeptic, some doubts remain. Both Dr. Vallbona and his colleague, Dr. Carlton Hazlewood, had reported the successful personal use of magnets to relieve their own knee pains prior to the study, raising doubts as to their objectivity. Conscious or unconscious biases of researchers can have very subtle and unrecognized effects on the results of their studies, and a serious difficulty of conducting any double-blind studies with magnets is the ease of distinguishing active magnets from sham magnets (although the patients were reportedly observed during the therapy period to assure that they were not surreptitiously testing their magnets). Another difficulty of any studies of pain relief is the highly subjective nature of the data.
Despite these various reasons for caution, the results of this study have altered the views of many physicians. Dr. William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, had formerly dismissed magnet therapy as “essentially quackery.” He now tentatively admits that it may have value for post-polio pain.
More studies will be needed before magnetic therapy will be accepted by a majority of the medical community, and some studies are already underway. Last year the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine gave a million-dollar grant to Dr. Ann Gill Taylor of the School of Nursing of the University of Virginia to study the use of magnets to relieve pain. Among other things, she will be testing the effectiveness of magnetic sleep pads in relieving pain in patients suffering from fibromyalgia, a common disease involving joint and muscle pain. While we wait for the results of these and other studies, does what we know about magnetic fields and the human body make it plausible that magnetic therapy for pain might have a physical basis beyond mind/body effects?”
The Beauty Brains bottom line
Looks like the jury is out on this one. While we’re still skeptical, it does look interesting!