Could magnetotherapy be the solution to treat aches and pains?

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We’re all familiar with those little fridge-stick letters spelling poetry so bad it’s so good, but did you know that some magnets are claimed to have therapeutic use?

Magnetic field therapy is the use of magnets to treat specific conditions or improve overall health.

The BBC says global sales of therapeutic magnets are estimated to be at least $ 1 billion a year, and according to a report from New York University’s Langone Medical Center, the practice has been around for thousands of years.

Some healers in Europe and Asia believed that magnets could attract disease to the body.

Today, some believe they can alter a person’s bioenergetic fields, which are defined by the US Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as “energy fields that are believed to surround and penetrate the human body”.

Magnetic field therapy assumes that certain problems arise because our bioenergetic fields are out of balance. There are three types of treatment:

Static magnetic field therapy this is where a magnet touches the skin via a bracelet or other magnetized item, such as a bandage, shoe insole, or mattress topper.

Electrically charged magnetic therapy (electromagnetic therapy) involves magnets that have an electrical charge and the treatment is done by an electrical impulse.

Magnetic therapy with acupuncture sees magnets placed on the same areas of the body that an acupuncturist would focus on during an acupuncture session involving needles, also known as “energy pathways” or “channels.”

A bioenergetic field can be called a “life force,” “chi” or “energy flow” and some say it can be manipulated to treat illness or injury.

Some companies that sell therapeutic magnets claim that they can help increase blood flow to the area of ​​the body where the static device is worn (because the blood contains iron and the magnets attract iron), helping the tissues to heal more. quickly.

Others say this is a questionable claim, as the iron in the blood is linked to hemoglobin, not ferromagnetic (the kind of magnetism that keeps magnets on a refrigerator).

Although it is also implicated for use for problems such as wound healing and insomnia, most magnetic field therapies are offered as a pain treatment option, with scientists studying its effectiveness for conditions such as arthritis, headaches and fibromyalgia.

Many therapeutic static magnets sold to relieve aches and pains have magnetic fields that are considered too weak to penetrate our skin. (This can be tested by observing the weak interaction between a magnetic shoe insert and a paper clip when separated by a sock; human skin is thicker than most socks.)

So far, studies have failed to show the effectiveness of using such magnets to treat joint and muscle pain or stiffness.

A review published in 2007 in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association discussed several studies of static magnets, and while some of the review’s smaller studies reported therapeutic value, the larger ones did not.

The researchers concluded: “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment.

On the other hand, a 1997 study from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas reported “significant and rapid pain relief in post-polio subjects” through the use of a 300-500 gauss magnet. (about 10 times more powerful than a fridge magnet) for 45 minutes on the affected area of ​​50 pain patients.

But the study was both small and controversial in that the two doctors who conducted it said they used magnets for their own knee pain before the study.

In 2006, the science behind therapeutic magnets was examined more closely in an article from the British medical journal. The authors reviewed the literature on the effectiveness of commercially available therapeutic magnets used to treat a range of diseases and found no evidence that they work.

Likewise, the website for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of Maryland stated that “scientific evidence does not support the use of magnets for pain relief” and that no evidence exists to support the use. magnets in the treatment of conditions such as fibromyalgia.

The more positive studies that have been conducted to date do not have enough data to draw a solid conclusion, although some clinical trials have shown the potential of magnetic field therapy as a treatment for back pain.

For the most part, however, there is no clear “proof” of its effectiveness.

Professor of Clinical Neuroscience Cathy Stinear (University of Auckland) studies transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive treatment that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

What is the difference between magnetotherapy such as the use of static magnets and TMS?

Magnets are the things that are going to stick to your refrigerator, so it’s a static and very weak magnetic field, whereas TMS produces a very brief magnetic field.

Because it changes rapidly and turns on and then turns off, it can activate muscle and nerve cells in the body. A static field will not do this.

If you remove a magnet from your fridge and place it on your arm or on your head, for example, nothing will happen, whereas with TMS it is the dynamic magnetic field that will trigger these electrically active cells.

There is a ton of research on TMS, which can be very effective in treating depression, for example. It is commonly used in the western world for research and in clinical practice.

Repetitive TMS is where you deliver a lot of those pretty weak magnetic stimuli in a matter of minutes.

It is an FDA approved treatment for depression and widely used in the United States. [In New Zealand, it’s only available in certain academic medical centres.]

How exactly does TMS help people with depression?

Repetitive MSD involves a series of weak stimuli delivered to a part of the brain, near the front, to alter its activity levels. Simply put, we believe it helps positively influence the network of brain areas that are responsible for how we think and feel.

This approach is effective if people take two to three weeks of treatment daily. It is a commitment on the part of the person who wants to engage in this process and must be done under medical supervision.

It’s not the kind of thing you can do yourself at home, but it’s an option for people who don’t get results with more obvious treatment options, like talk therapy. and drugs.

The great thing about MSD is that it’s quite different from Compulsive Electrical Therapy (ECT) for depression; it’s a pretty intense experience and people can’t drive after, for example, so it’s pretty confusing.

The good thing about the TMS approach is that it is safe, painless, you are awake, and you can just carry on with your day afterward, so there are several advantages – it is much gentler therapy.

What would you advise anyone considering trying magnetotherapy?

There’s a big difference between using dynamic TMS for depression and static magnets for arthritis pain – they’re two completely different things.

A lot of research has been done on the dynamic MSD approach, and besides being a useful treatment for depression, it has been shown to be a useful prognostic tool and can be applied to other things; there is a whole range of conditions that are being researched.

Tell us about your work with TMS around stroke recovery and rehabilitation …

We use TMS as a prognostic tool. We don’t need it for diagnosis because we know the person has had a stroke – we can use it for prognosis, by testing the pathways of movement in the brain and nervous system.

If they still work after a stroke, it is a better prognosis for movement recovery than if these pathways had been so badly damaged that they no longer work, so it is a very valuable test.

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