Magnets and electromagnetic therapy are forms of energy medicine. For thousands of years, electricity and magnetism have been used in medical treatments. In ancient China, magnets were used on acupuncture points. Minerals with natural magnetic qualities, called lodestones, were used to treat many conditions in the 10th and 11th centuries. The 19th century is referred to as the golden age of medical electricity because of the many magnetic and electrical devices invented and promoted during this time period. Magnetic insoles, girdles, belts, and caps were among the many devices available. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Medical Devices Amendment of 1976 have since limited the sale of magnetic devices within the United States. Both conventional medicine and unconventional medicine make use of magnets and electricity.
Conventional medicine makes use of magnets and electricity for both diagnostic and treatment purposes. Small electric currents produced by the body are measured by electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to diagnosis brain and heart conditions, respectively. Also, high-powered magnets are used for imaging body parts in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Recently, novel uses for electricity in medical therapies have been developed. For example, some people with Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic conditions have been treated with small electrodes implanted in their brains.
In complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), many magnetic and electrical treatments exist. Static magnetic fields are sometimes used, which are delivered through magnets available in belts, bracelets, and mats designed to go on the bed. Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy makes use of devices that create magnetic fields at specific frequencies.
Many hypotheses have been proposed concerning the mechanisms by which magnets could produce a therapeutic effect. Strong magnets near the spine could, theoretically, alter neural activity in the spinal cord to reduce muscle spasticity. It is often claimed that weaker magnets can correct electrical imbalances in the body, which are alleged to cause diseases. Some devices are used to stimulate acupuncture points and are supposed to produce beneficial chemical changes in the body. Some people also propose that magnets could change hormone levels, affect the immune system, or alter the flow of electrically charged atoms.
Evaluation in MS and Other Conditions
There have been four placebo-controlled clinical studies evaluating the effectiveness of pulsed electromagnetic therapy in MS. One study involved strong electromagnetic fields, while the other three used weak fields. The study involving strong fields applied to the spine found that this therapy decreased spasticity. The other three studies produced variable results. One of the studies, conducted in Hungary, reported that pulsed electromagnet therapy to the spine and legs improved pain, spasticity, and bladder control. Another study, at the University of Washington, reported that a pulsing electromagnetic field applied to acupuncture points was associated with improvements in bladder function, cognitive function, spasticity, mobility, fatigue, and vision. The last of these three studies involved the use of a pulsing device on an acupuncture point near the shoulder and found improvements in fatigue and overall quality of life. Further research is needed in order to clarify the effects of electromagnet therapy.
The therapeutic value of magnets has been evaluated in other conditions. Magnetic therapy may help improve pain resulting from diabetes-related nerve injury and post-polio syndrome. Mixed reports exist for the effects on neck and low back pain.
Pulsing electromagnetic therapy has many potential uses. It may promote the healing of bedsores, stimulate bone fracture healing, decrease ankle sprain swelling, and improve arthritis-related pain and joint issues.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved magnets for the treatment of any medical condition. Pulsing devices, however, have been approved for treating bone fractures that do not heal.
A relatively new area of research, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, uses high-intensity magnetic fields applied to the scalp. These fields pass through bone and stimulate the brain. Some research suggests it may be used to treat many conditions, such as pain and depression. Further research needs to be conducted to determine the efficacy of these proposed therapies. Due to the very strong magnetic fields used and the lack of available long-term safety data, transcranial magnetic stimulation is only used at designated research centers.
Low-intensity magnets and electromagnetic waves are usually well tolerated, but long-term safety data are not available. Pregnant women and people with implanted medical devices such as pacemakers should consult their physician when considering these therapies. People with cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, kidney disease, or heart disease should not use the weak-field pulsing devices. With high-intensity magnetic fields, people are more likely to experience adverse reactions, such as hearing loss, seizures, and headache. These devices should not be used except in clinical studies under the direction of qualified investigators.
People generally do not have issues tolerating treatment with low-intensity magnets and electromagnetic fields. Some research suggests that pulsing electromagnetic fields may improve some MS symptoms, including fatigue, cognitive difficulties, bladder issue, pain, walking difficulties, and especially spasticity. Further work must be done to definitively determine the safety and efficacy of this treatment in MS.
References and Additional Reading
Bowling AC. Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2007, pp. 165-169.
Cassileth BR. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998, pp. 299–304.
Oken BS, ed. Complementary Therapies in Neurology. London: Parthenon Publishing, 2004.
Polman CH, Thompson AJ, Murray TJ, et al. Multiple Sclerosis: The Guide to Treatment and Management. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2006, pp.157–159.
Weintraub MI. Magnetic biostimulation in neurologic illness. In: Weintraub MI, Micozzi MS, eds. Alternative and Complementary Treatments in Neurologic Illness. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 2001, pp. 278–286.
Guseo A. Pulsing electromagnetic field therapy of multiple sclerosis by the Gyuling-Bordas device: double-blind, cross-over and open studies. J Bioelec 1987;6:23–35.
Nielsen JF, Sinkjaer T, Jakobsen J. Treatment of spasticity with repetitive magnetic stimulation: a double-blind placebo-controlled study. Mult Scler 1996; 2:227–232.
George MS, Lisanby SAH, Sackeim HA. Transcranial magnetic stimulation: applications in neuropsychiatry. Arch Gen Psych 1999;56:300–311.
Lappin MS, Lawrie FW, Richards TL, et al. Effects of a pulsed electromagnetic therapy on multiple sclerosis fatigue and quality of life: a double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Alt Ther 2003;9:38–48.
Richards TL, Lappin MS, Acosta-Urquidi J, et al. Double-blind study of pulsing magnetic field effects on multiple sclerosis. J Alt Complem Med 1997; 3:21–29.
Vallbona C, Hazlewood CF, Jurida G. Response of pain to static magnetic fields in postpolio patients: a double-blind pilot study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1997;78:1200–1203.