A while back, I had a conversation with my naturopath about whether magnets really can help alleviate pain. "Bah," he said. However, much to the surprise of nonbelievers everywhere, more and more studies are indicating that magnets can indeed relieve pain. This is especially good news given the dangers of many pain relievers. A research team at Peninsula Medical School (Plymouth, England) conducted a study that was recently published in the BMJ (formerly named the British Medical Journal) on the use of magnets to relieve osteoarthritis pain. The study included 194 people with osteoarthritis in the hip or knee. They were separated into three groups -- one group wore a standard strength magnetic band... a second group wore one with weaker strength... and the third group wore a placebo band. After 12 weeks of wearing the devices, the group wearing the standard strength magnets reported significant reduction in pain versus those wearing the weak one or the placebo. To get a better understanding of what magnet therapy is about, I spoke with neurologist Michael I. Weintraub, MD, clinical professor of both neurology and internal medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla and adjunct clinical professor of neurology at Mt. Sinai Medical School in New York City. Dr. Weintraub has been studying magnet use for a number of years, in particular for his patients suffering from the pain of diabetic neuropathy (nerve disorders that can cause numbness, tingling and burning pain in people with diabetes). One problem in evaluating magnets, says Dr. Weintraub, has been that past studies were poorly designed, combining different types and strengths of magnets with different ailments into a single study. Although initially a skeptic, Dr. Weintraub designed and conducted carefully controlled studies with a placebo group on magnet use, including one with 375 people suffering from diabetic neuropathy. The results were enlightening -- wearing magnets relieved sensations of burning and tingling as well as exercise-associated pain. Dr. Weintraub says that even though doctors don't know why magnets work, he is now convinced that magnets often can be more effective in providing pain relief than even drugs. Okay -- so magnets have worked in the lab. How can you make use of them at home? Here's a primer on using magnets...
Magnet strength: Magnet strength is measured in gauss -- a refrigerator magnet is 10 gauss, while magnets used to treat pain go as high as 10,000 gauss or more. Dr. Weintraub explains that the quality and strength of the magnet is critical to its success -- it must be strong enough to penetrate the affected tissue, which might be quite deep or at a distance from the site of the magnet. A basic magnet, one with about 300 gauss to 500 gauss, can penetrate an inch or so, but Dr. Weintraub says that if, for instance, you are wearing a magnet to relieve deep back pain from a disc problem, you are going to need a stronger one. In that case, start with one that is well over 1,000 gauss and go higher if you find that isn't strong enough to ease pain. For pain in the finger joints, he suggests a wristband (not a bracelet that doesn't stay flush to the skin) that is at least 350 gauss.
How long to wear it: The amount of time you need to wear your magnet is another question. Wearing these isn't like taking an aspirin -- you should plan to have a magnet on for some time. Dr. Weintraub had his study subjects wear magnets 24 hours a day for four months. He says this was an arbitrary decision, but the effectiveness indicates that frequent wearing over a long period of time is likely advisable. The good news is that magnets don't wear out -- the material supporting the magnet may (such as in the shoe inserts), but Dr. Weintraub says the magnet itself will keep going and going. Dr. Weintraub reports that some patients find that to achieve ongoing pain control, they need to wear the magnets on a steady basis. However, it is unclear if this is true for all conditions that magnets are used for.
Best brands: Magnets are popular items and come in a wide range of prices. Dr. Weintraub says Bioflex (800-619-2717, www.bioflexmagnets.com) is a manufacturer of reliable products, but you may find other brands as well. He cautions that price does not necessarily guarantee a high-quality product.
One caveat about using magnets: Anyone with a medical device such as a pacemaker -- or whose partner has such a device -- should not wear magnets. They can disrupt the work of the device. Pregnant women also are advised not to wear them for the duration of their pregnancy.