Tag Archives: placebo

More questions than answers with magnetic therapy for arthritis

A  frequently asked question in the real of alternative medicine is what are the benefits of magnetic bracelets? The historic roots of this branch of a unorthodox treatment stretch back far into the realms of antiquity. Even before the ancient Greeks and Assyrians, there is evidence that loadstones (i.e. natural magnets) were used as tools of healing and pain relief. The same goes for the old kingdoms of Egypt and Babylon.

But does magnetic therapy work? It is all too easy to assume that if something lasts it must be right. There is a school of thought that says that memes (ideas) are like genes. The strong ones will survive and the weak ones will die off. But that assumption, tempting though it is, must be dismissed as unwarranted.

However “treatment” is a broad area, covering outright cure, reduction in intensity, pain relief, postponement, removal of visual symptoms(e.g. skin sores), etc. In practice, advocates of magnetic therapy tend to focus on palliative medicine. But do magnets really help with pain?

Perhaps the best starting point would be to look at the theory behind the belief. In other words, let us assume (provisionally) that magnetic bracelets ‘ease aches’ and then proceed to investigate how do magnetic bracelets work? The theory is that the magnets affect the haemoglobin in our blood, thus inducing (or resetting) the magnetic field in the body of the subject. It is this re-setting that supposedly makes us feel better, reducing pain and curing disease.

The only trouble is that the magnets in these bracelets and other jewellery items are too weak to affect the iron in the red blood cells. Indeed most experts agree that magnetic  bracelets cannot even effect the blood circulation.

But theory often lags behind experimental data. What about people’s real-world experience? Do magnetic bracelets work for arthritis? The mainstream experts tend to dismiss the more positive claims as anecdotal. They suggest that when a person thinks the magnets are making them feel better it is actually the placebo effect. (Placebo comes from the Latin for “I will please”.)

This skepticism is not good news for arthritis suffers who have heard about “arthritis bracelets”and are asking themselves: do magnetic bracelets work for arthritis. But as the the problems of arthritic pain are more associated with the bones and joints, the issue of iron in red blood cells is no longer the issue. However, whatever the mechanism, the fact is that the magnets may seem strong, but compared to – say – a magnetic imaging chamber, they are actually quite weak.

On the other hand, there is evidence that certain types of ailment can be treated with intense magnetic pulses. And if we’re asking “what helps arthritis pain?” we can broaden the question beyond the scope of bracelets and ask do magnets work for arthritis, even if they are large, medical magnets?  Or for other ailments. More generally, we might ask what do magnetic bracelets help with? Headaches maybe?

Certainly they do according to this study also reported in the Telegraph. This and other papers would tend to suggest that magnetic bracelets really help with pain, or at least with headaches. So if you asked “Do magnetic bracelets work for headaches?” the researchers would clearly say “not bracelets perhaps, but certainly magnetic pulses.”

And if we stop narrowing ourselves to just this or that medical problem and instead ask do the magnetic bracelets really work, the answers begin to become more promising. At minimum, no one has identified any specific dangers associated even with these high power magnets mentioned earlier, let alone the weaker ones in magnetic bracelets. So one of the health benefits of Magnetic Bracelets – Safe Alternative Medicine – is a given. But any claims beyond safety are in dispute. So,  even if the medical mainstream is persuaded about the power of high-power pulse magnets, they won’t necessarily be convinced to answer yes to the question do magnetic bracelets work for headaches?

But to those who ask do the magnetic bracelets really work, there is at least one study that clinches it.  It is actually quite an old study, published in the British Medical Journal thirteen years ago.  Authored by Dr. Tim Harlow of  Penninsula Medical School  the study surveyed 194 osteoarthritis patients suffering over 12 weeks. The purpose of the study was to screen out the placebo effect. They knew that subjects could test their magnets by holding them up against iron or steel, so the researchers split them into three groups, without them knowing. One group were given non-magnets, one group given strong magnets and the third group, weak magnets. They used a subjective scale for pain, but they found that the ones with weak magnets had better results than those with no magnets and the ones with strong magnets had the best results of all in terms of pain relief. As they were not told that the test included weak magnets, this result clearly ruled out the placebo effect.

So Magnetic bracelets DO work, say researchers. But that leads us right back to the other elusive question about Magnetic Bracelets – How Do They Work? And we’ve already established that for the time being at least, we don’t know.

So can bracelets actually heal the sick and not merely alleviate their suffering? The issue is surely one of definition. After all, what is a healing bracelet? If we seriously look back on the days of antiquity, we should be looking not at magnets but rather at copper. But how can copper help the body? What are the health benefits of copper?

I once asked a girl in her twenties who was wearing several such such bracelets: why do you wear copper bracelets? I assumed, because of her young age, that it was merely a fashion statement. I couldn’t imagine that some one so young having arthritis. But apparently she did and yes, the bracelets did alleviate the pain. But why does copper help arthritis? Is it that pesky placebo effect yet again? Or do copper bracelets really work?

Unlike magnets, there haven’t been any real studies, so we an can only speculate that it might have to do with atoms migrating to or through the skin. We know that copper is a trace element that the body needs. Some people even say that cooking with copper utensils helps us to bring it into our diet. But this is one area where the unknowns are too great to leave a definitive answer.


Controversy over the use of magnetic therapy in the treatment of osteoarthritis

brstd-11-wmaps-510Ask anyone who suffers from osteoarthritis – or any form of arthritis for that matter – and they’ll tell you that they have heard of magnetic therapy. A good many of them are cautiously positive about its efficacy as a palliative to the condition. Some of them even swear by it. But GPs and hospital specialists tend to be wary of it, claiming that it is at best unproven and at worst just a placebo.

But what does the research show? There are a number of studies that have shown that magnet therapy does alleviate pain in osteoarthritis sufferers. However, the medical establishment has always been uncomfortable with these studies and has attacked them, on two sets of grounds. The first is that the sample of patients they study is too small to draw any firm conclusions. The second is that even though the studies are technically “double-blind” – the Gold Standard within the medical research industry – they can never be completely “blind” because the patients can hold the putative magnets to an iron object and see if there is any attraction between them. This would mean that if they wanted to they could find out and this would invalidate the results of the study.

bac-1021-wmpsNow it seems strange to me that anyone would actually want to do this.  Apart from anything else it would imply ill-intent on the part of the patients. But is there any reason to think that human nature acts this way. Certainly no one has ever undertaken a study to determine whether such patient behaviour is common, or even if it happens at all!

A recent article on the Magnetic products store blog made short shrift of this argument:

One assumes that they would have no motive to do so. It is not as if either they or anyone else stands to benefit from such behaviour. And yet the sceptics – or rather the cynics – would have us believe that people who have volunteered to take part in a clinical trial would rather go out of their way to sabotage the trial or undermine its results than simply cooperate and work with the trial to achieve its objectives. This is a fairly outlandish conclusion to draw – and surely an absurd misinterpretation of human nature.

This very succinctly sums up the problem. The medical establishment is so anxious to discredit magnetic therapy – and indeed alternative medicine in general – that they cannot see the wood for the trees.