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Can magnets alleviate pain?

Dear Cecil:

My wife recently had a fiberglass cast removed and was given a metal brace that is strapped on with Velcro. Walking was painful until she put a couple of magnets against the afflicted area under an Ace bandage. Now she is pursuing the optional roller skate attachment to mount on the brace. She claims the magnets have some kind of magical properties that "cancel out" the pain. Do the magnets actually do something, or is the peroxide seeping through her scalp?

Patrick Colby

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I was all set to write this off as the usual baloney but figured I should riffle through the journals just in case. What do you know — at least one study claims that magnets produced salubrious results. Sure. Give me another hour and I could probably come up with a study proving you can use crystals to cure the common cold. But I figure it won’t hurt me to play along with the gag just once.

The unexpected results were reported in 1997 by Dr. Carlos Vallbona at Baylor College of Medicine. Fifty patients suffering pain in the aftermath of polio were treated by taping small magnets to the affected parts of their bodies. Twenty-nine patients got real magnets and 21 got fakes. The study was double-blind — neither patients nor staff knew who got the real magnets. The patients rated their pain on a ten-point scale before and after a 45-minute therapy session. The patients with real magnets reported a major decrease in pain (from 9.6 to 4.4 on average), while those with fakes reported much less improvement (from 9.5 to 8.4).

The obvious objections to this study: (1) The investigators had previously reported that magnets relieved their own pain and might have been biased. (2) Double-blind or not, it’s pretty easy to tell a real magnet from a fake one, and some patients may have told the doctors what they wanted to hear. (3) We’re talking about just one study. Previous research into various types of magnetic therapy came up dry.

The real problem with magnetic therapy — and related issues like whether low-level electromagnetic fields have adverse health effects — is that no one’s proposed a plausible physiological explanation for how magnetism does its stuff on the body’s cells. (I don’t mean all that crap in the ads about “negative and positive ion energy levels”; I mean something you could say in the lab without having everyone roll their eyes.) The chief guru of modern magnetic therapy, Dr. Kyochi Nakagawa of Japan, claims that magnets alleviate “magnetic field deficiency syndrome,” said to result from the diminishing strength of the earth’s magnetic field, which on the plausibility scale rates just above channeling space aliens. You have to be skeptical on general principles — magnets and related therapies have inspired centuries of quackery.

But I’m tired of always being a party pooper. If you want to tape magnets to yourself, you probably won’t do yourself any harm (provided you still see a doctor if you’ve got a serious complaint) and you’ll definitely amuse the other people on the bus. Just don’t be surprised if the next study says it was in your head all along.

Cecil Adams

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