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Magnets: They're Not Just for the Fridge Door Anymore
by Zachary Levin

The Domino Effect

I play basketball in Central Park with a bike messenger called Domino who wears a Chris Webber Kings jersey, Air Jordans, and breakaway pants. The apparel has not given him game—he’s terrible. But considering that only two years ago he was hit head-on by a cab while on his route, it’s a miracle he’s playing at all. 

I once asked him how he made such a phenomenal recovery. He said, “Gotta be the magnets.” Then he lifted up his jersey, revealing a dozen small magnets taped to various joints and pressure points. He wore magnetic insoles in his Air Jordans and slept on a magnetic mattress pad. I was ready to go out and buy stock in a magnet company until I discovered that Domino had never seen an infomercial he didn’t like. (I excused myself when he started telling me about a device he had ordered to increase the size of his penis.)

What’s Behind This $300-Million-Dollar Industry?

The concept of magnetic therapy is simple and goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. Magnets stimulate electromagnetic fields in the cells of the body, improving circulation and promoting faster healing and general good health. This is corroborated by Steven Abramson, M.D., chairman of the Department of Rheumatology and Medicine at the Hospital of Joint Disease in Manhattan, NY. Abramson cites animal research showing that “by altering magnetic fields, you can alter blood flow or reduce the amount of inflammation by blocking the movement of inflamed cells.” 

Robert Park, Ph.D., professor of physics at the University of Maryland, doesn’t buy into this. “The efficacy of magnetic therapy is zero,” Park says. “There’s not even a magnetic field to speak of. The way the therapy magnets are made, the fields don’t penetrate much over a millimeter. They barely get through the skin and certainly not through the subcutaneous fat.” Park also disputes the claim that because blood contains iron, magnetic fields have an effect on its flow. “The blood itself in which the hemoglobin is contained is diamagnetic, which means that, if anything, it is slightly repelled,” he says. “And the thermal agitation of the molecules in the blood alone is enough to overwhelm any effect.” 

Can Magnets Heal You?

Nevertheless, clinicians are employing magnetic therapy for everything from sports injuries to depression, arthritis to chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches to allergies, even for—keep your knickers on—controlling the bowels and bladders of tens of thousands of incontinent women. The Food and Drug Administration has warned doctors and manufacturers about health claims for magnets. In general, the medical establishment treats magnetic therapy as quackery. A Mayo Clinic Health Letter (August, 1998) states that reports of magnetic therapy “are mainly anecdotal” and that “there’s little medical evidence to back up health claims, and the therapy is still considered experimental.” 

The Pros

The research most often cited by proponents of magnetic therapy was conducted in 1997 by Carlos Vallbona, M.D., at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, TX. It was a double-blind study with post-polio patients. In the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Vallbona reported that patients experienced acute relief from chronic muscular and joint pain after having magnets strapped to the most sensitive areas of their bodies for several minutes. 

The Cons

Some professional athletes swear by magnetic therapy, which has helped increase sales. At least eighty golfers on the pro tour use magnets. (Personally, I’d think twice before becoming a human lightning rod on the links.) And former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu has used magnets for years, taping dozens of them underneath his uniform. Had Irabu been more successful on the mound, it’s conceivable that fans all across the world would be using magnetic therapy rather than gulping down androstenedione, the potion of choice of Irabu’s teammate Mark McGwire.

Until more long-term research is done, magnetic therapy will be tagged with that back-of-the-magazine stigma, sandwiched between ads for herbal pills for breast enlargement and fat-melting bodysuits. The American medical establishment has traditionally been skeptical of alternative treatments. Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, however, have a different perspective on this issue. Magnetic therapy is even covered by health insurance in Germany, Israel, and Japan (where for decades magnets have been sold over-the-counter at drug stores), as well as in forty-five other countries.

It looks like magnetic therapy is more than a passing fad. Whether it will gain widespread acceptance in this country the way acupuncture, massage, and Chiropractic medicine have, remains to be seen.

Magnet Do’s and Don’ts

  • Healing Magnets: A Guide for Pain Relief, by Sherry Kahn, M.P.H., (Three Rivers Press, June 2000), is a good resource if you’re interested in learning more about magnetic therapy. 
  • Magnets are available in department stores, over the Internet, and through independent distributors. 
  • The greatest risk with magnets is their affect on items in your pocket or purse. If magnets come into contact with your credit cards, they may wipe out the magnetically coded information on them. 
  • Magnetic therapy is not advisable for anyone who is pregnant or who has cancer in case it actually does affect cell growth.

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