Other common name(s): magnetic field therapy, magnet therapy, bioenergy therapy
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Magnetic therapy involves placing magnets of varying sizes and strengths on the body to try to relieve pain or treat disease.
Although there are reports of individuals being healed by magnetic therapy, available scientific evidence does not support these claims. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers these magnets harmless and of no use for medical purposes.
How is it promoted for use?
Many claims about magnetic therapy are based on the fact that some cells and tissues in the human body give off electromagnetic impulses. Some practitioners think the presence of illness or injury disrupts these fields. Magnets produce energy fields of different strengths, which proponents believe can penetrate the human body, correcting disturbances and restoring health to the afflicted systems, organs, and cells. Most magnets marketed to consumers are static magnets, also called constant magnets, because the magnetic field doesn’t change. They are usually made of magnetized metal or lodestone. Static magnets are different from electromagnets, which only have an energy field while electricity is passing through them (see our document, Electromagnetic Therapy).
Proponents claim magnetic therapy can relieve pain caused by arthritis, headaches, migraine headaches, and stress, and can also heal broken bones, improve circulation, reverse degenerative diseases, and cure cancer. They also claim that placing magnets over areas of pain or disease strengthens the body's healing ability. Some believe that magnetic fields increase blood flow, alter nerve impulses, increase the flow of oxygen to cells, decrease fatty deposits on artery walls, and realign thought patterns to improve emotional well-being.
Proponents of magnetic therapy assert that magnetic fields produced from the negative pole of the magnet have healing powers. Negative magnetic fields are thought to stimulate metabolism, increase the amount of oxygen available to cells, and create a less acidic environment within the body. Because many people who use magnets believe cancer cells cannot thrive when acid is low, they claim that the effects of negative magnetic fields can halt or reverse the spread of tumors by decreasing acidity. For the same reasons, they believe that negative magnetic fields speed the healing of cuts, broken bones, and infections, and that they counter the effects of toxic chemicals, addictive drugs, and other harmful substances.
What does it involve?
Magnetic therapy involves the use of thin metal magnets placed on or near the skin, alone or in groups. They are sometimes mounted on bracelets and necklaces, or attached to adhesive patches that hold them in place. Some magnets are placed in bands or belts that can be wrapped around the wrist, elbow, knee, ankle, foot, waist, or lower back. There are even magnetic insoles, seat covers, blankets, and slumber pads. These magnets may be worn for just a few minutes or for weeks, depending on the condition being treated and the practitioner.
What is the history behind it?
Interest in magnets as a source of healing dates back many centuries. A 16th century physician, Paracelsus, thought that because magnets attract iron they might attract and eliminate diseases from the body. In the Middle Ages, doctors used magnets to treat gout, arthritis, poisoning, and baldness.
The modern version of magnet therapy reportedly began in the 1970s, when researcher Albert Roy Davis, PhD, noticed that positive and negative magnetic charges had different effects on human biological systems. He claimed that magnets could kill cancer cells in animals and could also cure arthritis pain, glaucoma, infertility, and other conditions. Magnetic therapy has become a large industry in the United States and Europe and has been used widely in Japan and China for many years.
What is the evidence?
Magnetic therapy has undergone some study. Most of the success stories have come from a few isolated sources that have not provided proof that the treatment actually works. One small but well-publicized 1997 randomized clinical trial conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine reported that small magnets reduced pain in people who had recovered from polio. However, several problems in the study's methods were observed (for example, the patients in the two groups differed in ways that might influence their susceptibility to placebo effects). In addition, the study only looked at very short-term results and was intended to be a pilot study. Pilot studies are done only to decide whether it is worthwhile to do larger studies. To date, large studies have not been done.
To test the claim of improved blood flow, one study compared magnets and otherwise identical nonmagnetic disks on the arms of healthy volunteers. The researchers measured blood flow and found no difference between the real and fake magnets.
Clinical trials of static magnets for pain relief have generally had mixed results. One review noted that about half the studies found that magnets improved pain, and the other half did not. However, it has been difficult to conduct studies that can account for the placebo effect when using magnets. Patients are generally able to tell whether their bracelet or patch is magnetic, as real magnets attract metal objects like paper clips. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has also reviewed the data and stated that scientific evidence does not support use of magnets for pain relief. Studies of electromagnets, which have stronger magnetic fields, appear to be more promising (see our document, Electromagnetic Therapy).
We are not aware of any published clinical studies involving magnets as an anti-cancer treatment and know of only one study specifically involving cancer survivors. Researchers from the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing placed either magnets or nonmagnetic (placebo) objects at six acupressure points of breast cancer survivors suffering from hot flashes. The magnets were no more effective in reducing hot flash severity and turned out to be less effective than the fake magnets in decreasing hot-flash frequency, bother, interference with daily activities, and overall quality of life.
The FDA has not approved the marketing of magnets with claims of health benefits. In fact, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several makers and sellers of magnets because they were making health claims that had not been proven.
However, principles of magnetism have been applied very successfully in conventional medicine to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses magnetic fields to produce detailed pictures of the body without the use of x-rays. Researchers are working on additional medical uses based on magnetism, such as attaching anti-cancer drugs to the surface of microscopic magnetic particles that can be guided to a tumor by strong magnets outside the body. Another possibility is particles that generate enough heat to kill cancer cells in the presence of some kinds of magnetic field.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
According to the FDA, magnets used for magnetic therapy are generally considered safe. Magnets can cause malfunction or damage in implantable medical devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators, or infusion pumps. As with many metal objects, magnets can cause serious damage if they get too close to a MRI machine.
There may be physical problems such as orthopedic or soft tissue injury, especially for thicker “spot magnets” if they are worn in weight-bearing areas.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Barrett S. Magnet therapy: a skeptical view. June 2008. Accessed at http://www.quackwatch.org/04ConsumerEducation/QA/magnet.html on May 2, 2012.
Carpenter JS, Wells N, Lambert B, et al. A pilot study of magnetic therapy for hot flashes after breast cancer. Cancer Nurs. 2002 Apr;25(2):104-109.
Cepeda MS, Carr DB, Sarquis T, et al. Static magnetic therapy does not decrease pain or opioid requirements: a randomized double-blind trial. Anesth Analg. 2007;104:290-294.
Finegold L, Flamm BL. Magnet therapy. BMJ. 2006;332:4.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site. Get the Facts: Magnets for Pain. Feb 2012. Accessed at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/magnet/magnetsforpain.htm on May 2, 2012.
Ratterman R, Secrest J, Norwood B, Ch'ien AP. Magnet therapy: what's the attraction? J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2002;14:347-353.
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 Nov;78(11):1200-1203.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 12/26/2012