Friday, March 21, 2008

Magnetic Therapy

I'm a skeptic when it comes to "alternative medicine". Often the claims of alternative medicine conflict with the basic laws of physics...and in the end, physics always wins. In particular, there are many dubious health claims about the biological effects of electric and magnetic fields. For instance, I don't know of any research supporting the idea that magnets in your shoes or jewelry have health benefits, nor can I think of any plausible mechanism underlying such an effect. Are there companies that really promote such silliness? Go to Google and search for "magnetic therapy" and you'll find that, indeed, there are.

Bob Park is a prominent debunker of bogus alternative medicine claims. He discusses magnetic therapy in his book
Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud .

"'Natural' remedies [such as magnetic therapy] are presumed by their proponents to be somehow both safer and more powerful than science-based medicine. Fortunately, most natural medicine is in itself relatively harmless, aside from the financial damage done by paying eighty-nine dollars for a refrigerator magnet... It can, however, become dangerous if it leads people to forego needed medical treatment. Worse, alternative medicine reinforces a sort of upside-down view of how the world works, leaving people vulnerable to predatory quacks."

Another source of useful information is the magazine Skeptical Inquirer. In particular, see the article Magnet Therapy, A Billion-dollar Boondoggle by Bruce Flamm (July 2006), where he claims that there exists "a worldwide epidemic of useless magnet therapy." Also, see Stephen Barrett's article Magnet Therapy: A Skeptical View published by Quackwatch, Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to combat health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct. Barrett's bottom line is that "there is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today's products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin's surface."

How can you distinguish the legitimate from nonsense? I suspect the layman will have a hard time telling the difference between "magnetic therapy" (bogus) and "magnetic stimulation" (a well-understood technique to excite nerves in the brain). The only way I know to sort out the good from the bad is to educate yourself on the underlying physics as it applies to biology and medicine. One place to start is the 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. Whether you consult our book or another source of information, beware of suspicious claims about the benefits of electric and magnetic fields. Bioelectricity and biomagnetism are vibrant and important fields of study (see Chapters 6-9 of our book), but there is a lot of baloney out there too.

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