Magnets have used for centuries in China, India, and Egypt for their alleged healing powers. In the late 1800s, American advertisements offered magnetic belts and insoles as a cure for sleeplessness, hysteria, and indigestion. Such claims continue today, yet exactly how or if they work remains unknown.
One theory suggests that magnets can work with the body's own magnetism, similar to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedure. An MRI scanner creates a strong magnetic field, which causes the atoms within body tissues to shift. Based on that premise, it would seem possible for therapeutic magnets to heal damaged nerves.
Some researchers believe the magnets increase blood flow, "nourishing" a painful area, helping it heal, while others say magnets "repolarize" nerve impulses, changing the perception of pain.
Whatever the reason, magnetic insoles, mattress pads, pillows, bracelets, Belts, and even hairbrushes are a $5 billion industry worldwide, thanks to consumers who swear by them as a safe, noninvasive therapy for all types of chronic pain from tendonitis to migraine headaches.
Mainstream medicine, however, isn't buying it. For every study that shows the potential benefits of using magnets, it seems there's another that shows none at all. One of the more compelling studies appeared in the American Journal of Pain Management in January 1999. In it, Dr. Michael Weintraub, a neurologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., studied the effects of magnets on diabetic and nondiabetic patients with chronic foot pain.
His results showed 90 percent of the diabetics found magnetic footpad insoles significantly reduced chronic foot pain. While the numbers look impressive, critics say the study was too small to mean much. Meanwhile, another study done at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Prescott, Ariz., published in the March 2000 Journal of the American Medical Association, found that adults with long-term back pain got absolutely no significant pain reduction from magnet therapy.
Despite the controversy, most experts agree the therapy warrants more research. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health believes the potential of magnetic healing worthwhile enough that it funded two ongoing studies on magnets and pain.