|Natural Health Magazine: Natural Healing
By Sarah Fremerman
Natural Healing -August, 1998
New Evidence is giving credence
to this curious form of Pain relief, and may be silencing long-time
critics in the process.
Meet Magnet, P.I.
In 1993, a patient of Carlos Vallbona,
M.D., told him that a cushion made with small magnets had cured his
lower back pain. Vallbona was skeptical." I thought it was a psychological
effect," he recalls. " There was nothing in the scientific
literature that indicated magnets were helpful."
At the time, most scientists would
have agreed and some, like William Jarvis, Ph.D., executive director
of the National Council Against Health Fraud, still do. "There's
a lot of huckstering going on," Jarvis says. "Marketers are
making extravagant claims for which there is no evidence."
Physicians and scientists ridiculed
magnet therapy with good reason. Until last year, there was not a speck
of scientific evidence showing that magnets did what patients, and magnet
manufacturers claimed they did. In fact, one informal study, conducted
at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York in 1991 by physical therapist Benjamin
Gelfand, tracked a group of 24 patients suffering from bursitis, tendonitis,
and lower back pain. The patients wore magnets 12 hours a day for up
to six weeks and none experienced any pain relief that could be attributed
to the magnets. Gelfand concluded that magnet therapy merited no further
But magnet therapy wouldn't go
away. Anecdotal evidence continued to mount, despite the inability of
science to explain how magnets worked. Chronic pain sufferers like Vallbona's
patient, went on claiming that magnets worked for them. Consider these
*Golfer Jim Colbert's chronic back
pain forced him to quit playing professionally. Then a fellow player
recommended magnet therapy. 'When you have the kind of back I have,
you try anything," says Colbert, who returned to professional golf
four years later. He now straps several magnets to his back when he
plays and sleeps on a magnetic mattress pad every night. Today he is
one of the top-ranked players on the circuit.
*Ryan Vermillion, physical therapist
and athletic trainer for the Miami Dolphins, says he regularly treats
football players with magnets, including quarterbacks Craig Erickson
and Dan Marino. Vermillion says that although there's no way to be sure
magnets are helping the players' injuries to heal more quickly, he has
noticed differences since he started treating them with magnets three
"The players are saying they're
feeling better, but there are also objective things," Vermillion
explains. "After applying the magnets you will get some decrease
in swelling, or changes in post-surgical swelling or hematomas. You
can actually see the swelling decrease faster."
*Gail Banta of Weymouth, Mass.,
suffered from bursitis in her hips and arthritis in her back for 11
years. She had fibromyalgia, a painful neuro-muscular condition whose
cause is unknown. When her husband told her what he had heard about
magnets from a hunting guide in Canada, she decided to order a magnetic
mattress pad. The results astonished her. 'In one week of sleeping on
the pad, my backache was gone.' Banta says she had been taking 12 pills
a day for pain since the onset of her condition and that she had stopped
needing them within two weeks of purchasing the mattress pad. (She was
so impressed that she became a distributor for a Japanese magnet company
that sells products in the United States).
Facts in Favor
After hearing story after story
like these from his patients, Vallbona, the director of the Post-Polio
Clinic at the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, affiliated
with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was interested enough to
attend a 1994 conference on the effects of magnetic fields. What he
learned led him to suspect there might be something to magnet therapy
after all. He and his colleague Carleton Hazelwood, M.D., designed a
double-blind study to test the effect of magnets on 50 patients suffering
from pain associated with post-polio syndrome. What he found piqued
the interest of even the staunchest critics of magnet therapy.
In the study, Vallbona examined
the effects of one specific type of magnet known as a. concentric circles"
magnet. He had some subjects hold these permanent magnets (permanent
magnets have a static magnetic field) on points where they felt the
most intense pain, and others hold inactive magnets. All were told to
keep them in place for 45 minutes. After the magnets were removed, seventy-five
percent of the patients who used active magnets reported a significant
reduction in pain. Only 19 percent of the patients in the control group,
however, experienced even a small decrease in pain. No side effects
were reported. Vallbona published these results in the November 1997
issue of the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Vallbona's study did not explore
how long this effect might last, but he has continued to follow the
progress of participants, and the preliminary results look promising.
"Many patients reported that the effect lasted not only hours,
but days, weeks, even months in some cases," he says. "So
we have the impression that the relief brought about by the magnets
is lasting longer than relief by painkilling drugs."
Vallbona is no the only researcher
finding promising results. In a controlled setting, neurobiologist Alvaro
Pascual-Leone, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School
treated 17 severely depressed patients with a technique called "rapid-rate
transcranial magnetic stimulation.' The treatment involves using an
electromagnet- produced by running an electric current through a coil
of wire to stimulate the activities of certain areas of the brain. After
five daily sessions of the treatment, 11 of the 17 patients showed a
marked improvement that lasted for two weeks after the treatments and
no on reported significant adverse effects- Pascual-Leone published
his findings in the July 1996 issue of the Lancet.
Several related studies on electromagnetic
brain stimulation-, including one at the National Institutes of Healing,
are currently exploring the use of this technique to treat a range of
neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and
even learning disabilities. Ann Gill Taylor, director of the Center
for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Charlottesville,
Virginia, has just begun a year-long study designed to investigate the
effect of using static magnetic fields to treat 10O patients suffer"
Although intrigued by research
results, Gelfand and Jarvis say they are still waiting for more scientific
evidence that magnet therapy works. The Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), which has not approved the use of permanent magnets to treat
pain, has approved several independent review boards to track current
research in the field.
No one knows for sure how magnetic
fields interact with the human body. But there are a few leading theories:
Experts agree that magnets probably
help increase blood flow to a painful area of the body, which carries
more oxygen to the region, decreases inflammation, and relieves pain.
According to biophysicist Marko Markov, Ph.D., magnets probably stimulate
blood flow because blood is composed of positively and negatively charged
particles. Markov recently conducted a study-which has not yet been
published-that found a substantially increased blood flow to an area
of a horse's leg where a magnet was applied.
Vallbona suggests that the magnetic
field may affect pain receptors in the painful area, eliciting a slight
anesthetic affect, or that the magnetic field might be transmitted via
blood vessels to the brain, which then releases endorphins, chemicals
that act as natural pain relievers.
Theories are one thing, facts are
another, which is why Vallbona has plans for further research on magnets.
In the meantime, since he completed his study with the post-polio patients,
he has been successfully treating his own injured shoulder with two
small magnets. And he now takes along several magnets whenever he travels-just
in case he needs them.