A Tale of Discovery, Fraud and Achievement
For thousands of years, mankind has been amazed by magnetic rocks, known as lodestones. These minerals contain iron compounds that have been mildly magnetized by the Earth's magnetic field as the lodestones were formed under heat and pressure. Magnets are named after the ancient Greek city of Magnesia where deposits of lodestone were discovered. Five hundred years ago, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, wondered if diseases could be manipulated by magnets. But natural lodestones are quite weak and few people paid much attention until the discovery of carbon-steel magnets in the 1700's. Then along came Franz Anton Mesmer who treated a deranged woman with magnets and publicized his work as an example of the healing power of "animal magnetism". Whatever this means, Mesmer became the rage of Paris and in 1784 the king commissioned a review of his theory. Benjamin Franklin participated in this study which concluded that "animal magnetism" was fraud and magic healings were due to a placebo effect. But this didn't stop Mesmer or his many followers. In English, the word mesmerize is a virtual synonym for hypnotize. One hundred years later in 1886, the C.J. Thatcher mail order catalog listed dozens of magnetic healing garments, including a complete costume with 700 embedded magnets for "full protection of all vital organs." And magnetic therapy is alive and strong today.
During the 1800's, most of the discoveries relating electricity to magnetism were made by the early pioneers of our modern technical world, men such as Gauss, Weber, Faraday and Maxwell among others. Many marvelous inventions followed and the public was ready to believe almost anything could be achieved by these mysterious forces. Today, we are a little more skeptical ... at least we like to think so. With the development of ceramic and rare earth materials, small yet powerful magnets can be manufactured economically. And, these magnets find their way into jewelry, elastic bands, mattresses, pillows and facial masks. They are supposed to cure aches, pains, stiffness, arthritis, fibromyalgia, bone spurs, varicose veins, migraine headaches, depression and sleep disorders while they improve overall health and even athletic ability. It's a billion dollar market. The magnets themselves cost a few dollars but, when sewn into supports, wraps and braces, they sell for $40 to $80. Mattress pads run into the hundreds of dollars and therapy stations can cost thousands. The population seems somewhat divided on the merits of magnetic healing, with most doctors considering it quackery. Many studies have shown permanent magnets to be of no help with medical conditions. On the other hand, a double blind study at Baylor College of Medicine concluded that permanent magnets significantly reduced pain in post-polio patients. Another double blind study at the School of Nursing within the University of Virgina showed small statistical reductions of pain in fibromyalgia patients that slept on a magnetic mattress. And there are virtually thousands of people that claim magnets have helped them, including many notable sports figures.
Many websites selling magnets claim that only magnetic south poles have healing properties. If you buy into this, there should be a big difference between facing south or north. Practically speaking, there is no real difference in how you face or where you live. And logically thinking, there can't be much of a difference between north and south poles in medicine. Cells in the body are three dimensional and covered with a membrane that forms a boundary between cytoplasm inside and fluids outside. If a south magnetic field enters through the front side of a cell, it must exit through the back side. This is the same as a north magnetic field entering through the back side of the cell and exiting through the front. No matter what pole you place on your skin, the cells underneath will experience both north and south phenomena since opposite sides have opposite orientation. The same argument applies to the alignment of most cells; there are capillaries, muscle fibers and tissues running every which way under your skin. All this doesn't mean that magnets can't affect cell function. It just means that the Civil War is over and north and south can live in peace.
If you believe that magnets can be helpful, you have to wonder what principles are at work. One of the more interesting theories postulates something called "Magnetic Field Deficiency Syndrome." It is offered as an explanation of biomagnetic effects by Dr. Kyochi Nakagawa of Japan. The Earth's magnetic field is not fixed in position or strength. In the last hundred years, it has weakened on the average by about 6 percent. In the last thousand years, it has fallen nearly 30 percent. Dr. Nakagawa argues that since humans evolved in a magnetic field, it is necessary for proper health. A falling magnetic field puts us at risk and magnetic therapy makes up the deficit. This theory may provide insight into magnetic effects, but what about continental differences in the Earth's field? Due to underlying geology, the magnetic field in South America is about 50% less than the field in North America. This is illustrated in the map showing regions of higher strength in green and lower strength in red/orange/yellow. If Dr. Nakagawa is correct, his syndrome should be epidemic in South America. If this is true, it certainly hasn't made the news in my town.
Another popular explanation for magnetic healing points to the iron in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. Magnets attract iron, so blood must be affected similarly. Again, it sounds good but it is probably wrong. Hemoglobin is a very large structure containing only isolated iron atoms, few and far between. These iron atoms are attracted to a magnet but the iron is so sparse that the net effect is almost nothing. Blood has a magnetic response not much different from that of plain water. Another belief holds that charged ions in blood interact with magnetic fields to improve circulation. This explanation is based on Lorentz forces which are proportional to the magnetic field strength, the charge of the particle and the speed of the blood flow. Unfortunately, when you plug in the numbers for blood flow, the calculated forces are so weak that it is hard to imagine they could affect circulation. The truth is, no one really understands the mechanisms by which magnetic fields affect human health. There are many theories but very little agreement. It is a problem as complicated as a human being, concerning dozens of organs and thousands of different molecules. On the flip side, just because you can't explain something, doesn't mean it can't happen. It's good to be skeptical but perhaps we should also be skeptical of the skeptics. The National Institutes of Health, a federal agency with a division that examines alternative medicine, takes a reasonable stance. They suggest that magnetic products should be purchased on a trial basis with a 30 day return policy. If they help, that's great. If they don't help, send them back.
So far, we have been discussing only magnetic fields produced by permanent magnets. For two hundred years, it has been possible to build magnets from coils of wire powered by electricity called electromagnets. Such devices can be pulsed to produce magnetic fields that change very rapidly. This opens a whole new world of medical applications since changing magnetic fields can induce tiny electrical currents in human tissue. Pulsing electromagnetic therapy is approved by the FDA to promote the healing of serious bone fractures. And powerful electromagnets are used in brain and muscle research to generate currents strong enough to fire nerves that trigger sensations and flex muscles. To date, there have been many basic research studies and even a few clinical trials of pulsed electromagnetic therapy. Research shows electromagnetic fields have significant impact on nerve and muscle stimulation thresholds, cell growth rates, cellular respiration, lipid bi-layer permeability, metabolism of carbohydrates, gene expression, endocrine and hormonal stimulation and immune system response to name a few.
Considering the recent meltdown of the prescription pain relievers Vioxx, Bextra and Celebrex, magnetic therapy may become an alternative to pain pills. It is estimated by Dr. David Graham, formerly of the FDA, that the side effects of Vioxx alone may have caused 139,000 heart attacks or strokes, resulting in the premature death of 26,000 Americans. This may be an overstatement, but all prescription drugs are handicapped by unwanted side effects as their active chemicals circulate throughout the entire body. If prescription side effects can kill thousands, they probably bring lesser misery to millions more. These risks must be weighed against the benefits. Modern drugs can be true miracles if they are used carefully. On the other hand, magnetic therapy introduces no chemicals and is localized to target only the problem area. It sounds like magnets could be safer. In the pages that follow, permanent magnets and electromagnets are discussed in more detail. Considerations of shape, size and technical limits are explored. Interaction with human cells and tissue is examined and a summary of current research is presented.