More Options

Magnetic Healing: An Old Scam That Never Dies

Column

Steven Novella

Volume 35.1, January/February 2011

The notion that magnets can be used for healing has existed since humans discovered them.

Magnetic charms, bracelets, insoles, and braces remain popular and are sold with claims that they improve athletic performance, relieve arthritis pain, increase energy, and pretty much treat whatever symptoms you might have. These products may seem modern and high-tech, but similar devices and claims have been around for centuries.

The notion that magnets can be used for healing has existed since humans discovered them. Several ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, Greece, and China, discovered natural magnetic rocks, or lodestones. People had a hard time explaining the unusual properties of these rocks given the scientific knowledge of the time, so they came up with fanciful explanations like “minerals have souls too.” This was compatible with the general belief that everything has an “essence.”

It was also observed that this magnetic property can be transferred. Socrates wrote: “That stone not only attracts iron rings, but imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see many pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another to form quite a long chain; and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone” (quoted in Keithley 1999).

It then seemed natural that because living things have an energy and essence, and certain rocks contain an energy and essence, that such rocks could be used to heal illness-to transfer their energy to a living being. Even today, this idea has an emotional and even rational appeal. Who wouldn't want to be healed by the equivalent of McCoy's medical scanner, which non-invasively uses invisible and painless energy fields to return our tissues to health at the cellular level. When we fantasize about future medicine, that is what we imagine. It is no surprise, then, that through the centuries magnetic healing has been very popular-and its popularity has only increased with advancing scientific understanding of magnetism and the eventual discovery of electromagnetism.

The relationship between medical academia and popular marketing hasn't changed in hundreds of years either. In 1600, William Gilbert wrote De Magnete, in which he described detailed experiments with magnets and electricity and systematically disproved hundreds of popular health claims for such treatments. This established debunking of magnetic therapy continued into the seventeenth century with Thomas Browne (Macklis 1993). Considering how primitive scientific methods and medical knowledge were at this time, the claims of magnetic healers must have been especially fantastical and their treatments remarkably worthless.

But “The Man” was not able to keep magnetic healing down. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Franz Mesmer dramatically increased the popularity of magnetic healing with his “animal magnetism” theory. Mesmer thought that animal magnetism was a unique force of nature that flowed like a fluid through living things. He also thought he could manipulate it through a combination of hypnotism and laying-on of hands. After a high-profile debunking by a commission led by Benjamin Franklin, however, Mesmer's fame faded, and he died poor and forgotten. But his legacy survived-magnetic healing remains very popular to this day.

Today the relationship among magnets, popular health claims, and the medical/scientific community remains the same. The public is fascinated by the notion of healing with electricity, electromagnetic fields, and magnetic energy. The fact that many medical interventions are legitimately based upon electromagnetism increases this interest. People understand that we use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to peer into the body. Recent studies indicate the potential for transcranial magnetic stimulation as an effective treatment for migraines (Lipton and Pearlman 2010). We routinely measure electrical (and now even magnetic) brain waves to assess brain function.

Electromagnetism is the real energy of life, and therefore it is very plausible that all sorts of magnetic and electrical interventions will be useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. But this potential also opens up a market for countless quack magnetic devices that exploit this appeal. You can buy what are essentially refrigerator magnets to strap to your elbow or knee or put in your shoe or under your pillow. These static magnetic fields have no demonstrable effect on blood flow or living tissue, and their fields are so shallow that they barely extend beyond the cloth in which they are encased, let alone to any significant tissue depth. The scientific evidence for their efficacy is negative (Pittler et al. 2007). Even more absurd are magnetic bracelets that are supposed to have a remote healing effect on the body. Their plausibility plummets even further.

It is eternally frustrating that scientific evidence and academic acceptance of medical claims seem to have no bearing on the marketing and popular appeal of those claims. This disconnect appears to be especially true of claims for magnetic devices and treatments-and it has survived for centuries.

References

Keithley, Joseph F. 1999. Measurements from the beginning through the Middle Ages. In The Story of Electrical and Magnetic Measurements: From 500 B.C. to the 1940s. New York: IEEE Press. Available online at http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/30/07803119/0780311930-2.pdf.

Lipton, Richard B., and Starr H. Pearlman. 2010. Transcranial magnetic simulation in the treatment of migraine. Neurotherapeutics 7(2) (April): 204–12.

Macklis, Roger M. 1993. Magnetic healing, quackery, and the debate about the health effects of electromagnetic fields. Annals of Internal Medicine 118(5) (March): 376–83.

Pittler, Max H., Elizabeth M. Brown, and Edzard Ernst. 2007. Static magnets for reducing pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Canadian Medical Association Journal 177(7) (September): 736–42.

Steven Novella

Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the host of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, author of the NeuroLogica blog, executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, and president of The New England Skeptical Society.