Does magnetic therapy work?

Monday, October 23, 2006
Pain affects everyone, and for some people it's not always easy to find relief — making alternative solutions appealing.

When it comes to natural healing, there is a swag of alternate therapies available — aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, massage therapy … and magnetic therapy.

Magnetic therapy is worth over half a billion dollars in the USA alone, and Australia's now not far behind. Reporter Michael Slater is on a mission to find out if magnets really relieve pain.

Supporters of magnetic therapy believe that by placing magnets on or near an injured area, the magnetic field encourages the flow of oxygen-rich nutrients to the injured area.

Craig Trinder swears by it. He's a champion motorbike rider and was just 18 when he smashed his spine.

"I was in pain for 15 years, 24/7, on a daily basis," he says.

"The first product I tried was the back support," Craig says of magnetic therapy. "I couldn't believe it, within three days I felt a difference and within two weeks, all the pain was gone — 15 years, gone in two weeks."

Craig has got a vested interest in magnetic therapy — he sells all manner of braces with magnets inside them.

Other converts, however, include TV doctor James Wright. He's used magnets to reduce muscular discomfort in his back and osteoarthritis pain in his knee.

"After a while I noticed the pain seemed to diminish; over a period of a few days or a few weeks, it was less noticeable," says Dr Wright.

"Western medicine says 'rubbish, can't possibly work'," he says. "As an ordinary doctor, in many cases, I've found it does work."

The test

Reporter Michael Slater has a legacy of back pain after a lifetime of playing sport. He's going to test the therapy by sleeping on a magnetic underlay for a few nights to see if it eases his back pain.

Physiotherapist Michael Ryan is also going to see if magnets can ease the pain of osteoarthritis for arthritis sufferers, Jill, Jim and Morris.

Jill's pain is in her hands; Jim's is in his knee and Morris's is in his shoulder.

Their pain is rated before the therapy on a scale of one to 10. Jill and Jim rate their level of pain as a three; Morris says his is a two on that particular day.

Jim and Morris are to wear magnets for four hours and then Michael Ryan is going to check their pain levels.

Often just thinking you're getting treated can make people feel better — the placebo effect — so unbeknownst to Jill, she is going to be wearing dummy magnets.

Dr Richard Gordon is a practicing GP and spokesman for the Australian Sceptics organisation.

"There's nothing to show that human tissue responds in any particular way to a magnetic field," he says, "particularly the weak magnetic fields that are used in these bandages, pads, back supports etc."

Another type of magnet therapy that's more widely accepted is pulsed electromagnetic therapy, or PEMT. It's getting great results for Dr Leonard Rose at Melbourne's Pain Management Clinic.

"It's a form of therapy that uses electromagnetic radiation," he explains. "Basically, these radiations created by electrical impulses passing through copper coils are electronically switched from negative to positive constantly and this creates a pulsed magnetic field, as opposed to static magnets."

The electromagnetic field is set up inside a drum that's big enough for patients to sit in. It brings sweet relief for Diane, who's suffered chronic pain since a serious car accident.

"It's one of the only things that I've been able to find that allows me to lower my pain level without side effects at all," she says.

It's worked for Diane, but Dr Rose is the first to admit that PEMT isn't for everyone

"It doesn't always work," he says. "We've had people say they don't like the sensation, we even had some people say they didn't like the sensation even when the machine wasn't switched on, so a placebo effect is obviously playing a role in some patients, perhaps as many as one in three."

The results

After sleeping on a magnetic underlay for a week, Michael reports that he's had no change with his back pain, saying that maybe magnetic therapy is just no good for him.

After wearing their magnets for a few hours, it's time to measure the pain levels of the other three sufferers.

Jim rates his pain level at two. It's a small decrease from his original level of three.

Morris rates his pain the same as it was before, saying there has been no change for the better or worse.

Jill, who was wearing the fake magnets, also rates her pain the same as it was before. There was no placebo effect on her.

The conclusion

Our test had a mixed bag of results, and that's consistent with what clinical tests around the world have found. Some have suggested magnetic therapy works, but an equal number have found it doesn't.

There's also the possibility that the benefit of magnets is psychological.

"If people use it and they obtain benefit, I'm certainly not going to say 'don't use it'," says physiotherapist Michael Ryan. "It's up to people to decide, but my take, professionally, is that I don't particularly support them."

The evidence is inconclusive, but Dr Wright is still a fan.

"Who knows — who cares? If it works, it works," he says.

Remember, pain is your body's way of telling you something's wrong, so whatever your attraction is to magnets, go see your doctor to get it checked out.

A weight-loss revolution? Beating the mid-afternoon slump Body beautiful: alternative ways to tone up How to tell when someone's lying