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Fact or Fiction?
What is Magnet Therapy?
How does it work?
First, a quick lesson in neuroscience. Neurons communicate with each other through the use of electrical charges called action potentials (AP). These AP are carried all the way to certain parts of the brain where they are properly interpreted. They are caused by a series of events involving an interaction of sodium and potassium ions within each neuron sequentially. Transmission of information can be halted if the AP are altered or slowed. This alteration is the basis of the magnetic therapy theory.
The precise process of how magnets assist in pain relief is not entirely known. It appears that the key factor in of a magnet is the field gradient, not the field intensity. One study has shown this to be the case under experimental conditions (http://nursing.vanderbilt.edu/pain/reports/pub-meas.html). A neuron was isolated using the patch clamp method and several tests were run. Under two conditions in which the field intensity of an array of magnets remained the same and only the gradient changed, the lower field gradient meant more failure of AP. This means lower transmission of pain interpretation signals in the brain. Fewer action potentials = less pain. Again, it is not known how this occurs, but it does.
Another example with a little more biological evidence explains the same as before; the firing of AP is based upon the field gradient. However, the difference is that this experiment used neurons from specific pain tracts in the nervous system called nociceptive and mechanoceptive neurons (http://nursing.vanderbilt.edu/pain/reports/pub-effect.html). Since this isolated neuron’s AP were blocked, it is reasonable to assume that they would be blocked in their natural environment as well. Both of the studies give clues as to how the process works. Even though there are many other ideas about the process, this is the leading theory with the most evidence to support it at the time.
Is there any evidence supporting Magnet Therapy?
Yes. Granted, because this is an alternative method of treatment there is not a whole lot of studies concerning this topic. However, the evidence that does exist is strong. One study looked at magnet therapy as an adjunctive treatment for inflammatory arthritis (http://nursing.vanderbilt.edu/pain/reports/pub-efficacy.html). Despite other drugs being taken for pain, magnet therapy still improved symptoms. Initially, 84% of the patients had tenderness in the joints and 53% had inflammation. After only one week of treatment with the magnets, the numbers dropped drastically to 20% and 30% respectively. This is only a small testament to the effectiveness of the therapy.
The best study on the performance of magnets as pain treatment is a double-blind randomized crossover study of 54 patients from Texas and Alabama (http://nursing.vanderbilt.edu/pain/reports/pub-bio.html). These patients suffered from chronic lower back pain or knee pain and were assigned to one of two groups: either magnet therapy or the same magnetic device only the magnetism had been removed. Pain was measured at different intervals in the day, but not longer than 24 hrs. Prior to treatment, the average pain rating was 52.9, but after treatment the average dropped to 8.11. This shows the dramatic difference in the perception of pain the magnets can have. It must be stressed that the magnets do not heal, but only reduce pain.
Why the confusion?
With all of the research that has been presented here, why is there such skepticism? The answer lies in the type of magnets that are used. In all of the studies previously mentioned a particular type of formation, called quadripolar permanent system, was used for treatment. This formation was compared to the effectiveness of several other arrays of magnets, but this was the only one with statistically significant results. The formation is an alternation of positive and negative poles within the magnet grouping. The result is a more appropriate field gradient, which is the most important factor for the magnets to work. The only magnets on the market today that use this type of field are the MagnaBlocä magnets developed by Dr. Robert Holcomb at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, TN.
Another problem that can cause confusion is that with some types of pain the proper placement of the magnets may be in an odd location. Due to the organization of fiber tracts that carry AP to the brain, effective locations for some pains may be in a place that is different from where the pain is perceived. Follow the link below to the MagnaBloc website to find how to properly place the magnets.
Will Magnet Therapy benefit me?
This question depends on the type of pain being felt. This treatment is intended for use of chronic pain or supplementary use with medication after serious injury or surgery. Again, it should be stressed that the magnets do not heal anything…they only prevent the transmission of pain signals to the brain providing relief. Two fantastic case studies were conducted at VUMC, but were too lengthy to list. Learn more about these two debilitated children the magnets were able to help by following this link and downloading the pdf format (http://nursing.vanderbilt.edu/pain/reports/pub-pdf.html).
Health News. “Magnet therapy attracts interest—but does it work.” Toronto: Aug/Sept 2001. Vol. 19, Iss. 4; pg 1-2.
Hawkins, Dana. “Take two magnets and call me later.” US News & World Report. Washington: Dec 7, 1998. Vol. 125, Iss. 22; pg. 86
*All other references are hyperlinked within the text
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