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USA TODAY: Ironclad cures for pain? Athletes put their faith in power of magnets

By Sal Ruibal   Section: SPORTS

Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski KO's quarterbacks, then sleeps like a baby on a magnetic mattress pad.

Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu throws a wicked split-finger fastball with dozens of magnets stuck to his body.

Senior PGA Tour golfer Jim Colbert swings for the green with dollar bill-sized magnets strapped to his lower back.

Magnetic therapy is the hottest trend among professional athletes. But the idea of using magnetic fields to increase blood circulation in injured tissue and encourage healing by stimulating the nervous system goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece and Egypt. The original Olympic athletes might have used magnets.

And in the same way that today's top athletes influence fashion and language, their eagerness to embrace alternative healing techniques is influencing the public: U.S. consumers will spend more than $500 million this year on magnetic pads, bracelets, shoe inserts, back wraps and seat cushions, the magnet companies say.

Pro Bowl linebacker Romanowski began using magnets seven years ago while a member of the 49ers but didn't take them seriously. The team trainer had recommended them, but it was not until Romanowski had offseason surgery that he adopted the idea. "I'm a believer, definitely," he says. "The first time I tried them, I got pain relief. It wasn't mental. I know it wasn't mental because I know my body."

Because they know their bodies, it's natural that top athletes would be attracted to alternative therapies, says Dinnie Pearson, a Cranial-Sacral therapist with the Mind/Body Center in King of Prussia, Pa.

"Athletes use a lot of mental imagery, visualizing the correct muscle movements for their sport," Pearson says. "They can use that same powerful tool for healing, contacting injured areas to focus on that tissue to help it in the natural healing process."

Gregg Westwood, a somatic psychotherapist at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., says, "Athletes are more courageous about taking the kinds of risks that lead to understanding how their bodies work." San Diego Padres trainer Larry Duensing says few of his players use magnets on a regular basis, but some, notably outfielder Chris Jones, have tried them to rid soreness. "It’s just another tool available to them," Duensing says. Although the Padres aren't big on magnets, they have turned to acupuncture.

The Chiba Lotte Marines, lrabu's former team in Japan, attended spring training this season with the Padres. The Marines' trainers, observing the big-league operation and trainers, introduced the Padres to acupuncture. General manager Kevin Towers became a convert when acupuncture helped alleviate his back pain, and he had acupuncturist travel with the team earlier this year. The team credits the therapy with helping second baseman Quilvio Veras get over hamstring problems. "I think it's great," Towers says. "I know it worked on me. It blocks the nerve endings and takes the pain away. It's very relaxing. I'd go back." Not understanding how an alternative therapy works is no roadblock for jocks in search of relief, but it can be for the federal government.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not approved magnetic therapy, but the National Institutes of Health is investigating the phenomenon.

The NIH Office of Alternative Medicines, which was created only five years ago, is funding a study of magnetic therapy at the University of Virginia's School of Nursing.

Bronco’s safety Steve Atwater isn't waiting for the scientists to bless his magnets. " I don't know what it is, but it works, " the 30-year-old, seven time Pro Bowl player says. "I figure it can't hurt me, and it may help me."

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