Pain expert Dr. Scott Fishman answers questions about pain medication:
Q: Are magnets any good for treating pain?
A: Magnets are the latest rage for pain relief and can be found in virtually any drug store. However, they join a long line of miracle cures and gadgets that have promised a cure for pain but have mainly produced a lighter wallet. There is scant scientific evidence for the effectiveness of magnets.
However, in all fairness to miracle cures, both primitive and modern, there are some established, conventional treatments that squelch pain but which doctors do not fully understand. Being unproven does not make a treatment worthless or bogus. More than once, yesterday's quack cure has become today's mainstream alternative treatment. Hypnosis is a good example of this.
Some studies have been done on magnets. Doctors at New York Medical College studied the effect of magnets for easing foot pain in twenty-four diabetic patients. They said that the results were good but cautioned that the study group was small and the findings preliminary.
The study doctors readily admit that they do not know why the magnets seemed to work. Other studies have been less promising. An obvious limitation on magnet studies is the practice of "blinding" test subjects (that is, ensuring that the test subjects do not know whether they are testing a magnet or a placebo). With a magnet wrap, a metal object such as a paperclip is all it takes to reveal whether it is genuine or a dummy.
The nature of pain itself makes me suspicious of magnets, copper bracelets, electric zappers, homeopathy, and other yet-to-be proven pain treatments. History and practice have demonstrated that it is easy to concoct a treatment that seems to work at the moment. But because of pain's inherent complexities and all the mind-body influences that are a natural party of any treatment, it is extremely difficult to prove that a single treatment inherently reduces pain.
With unproven treatments, my philosophy is wait-and-see until all the evidence in. But as long as magnets or other similar remedies are safe and do not preclude a patient from using proven effective treatments, I have few objections to their use.