Living With Chronic Pain

Do Magnets Help?

I hurt. I hurt every minute, of everyday. So I admit I have researched, looked into, and tried everything that might possibly help, in any way, as long as it didn’t cause harm. That’s what sufferers do. Pray, hope, share and search for anything that can provide relief.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1 year ago estimated that 50 million American adults (20.4 %) of the U.S. adult population have chronic pain, defined as pain most days or every day for at least the past six months. Now add to that those who have intermittent but persistent pain and the number escalates to 30%. As a result, it makes sense a lot of charlatans out there are taking advantage of our suffering by advertising and touting products they claim can help.

If that means a pretty piece of jewelry, clothing, a weighted blanket, magnets… why not try them? From TV and print ads to outdoor street fairs they advertise their amazing abilities. Forgive my skepticism when they claim relief from depression, anxiety,  hair loss, erectile dysfunction, gastrointestinal distress. . .as well as pain.

As the age old adage says- if  it’s sounds too good to believe, it probably is. 

Here’s the first in a series of advertised products on the market today I’ll be discussing.


People have been using magnets to improve health for a long time. In the third century A.D., the Greeks treated arthritis with magnets. Medieval doctors used magnets to treat gout, poisoning, and baldness. During the American Civil War, some used magnetic hairbrushes, shoe insoles, ointments and magnet-adorned clothing to treat maladies of many types.

How are they supposed to work?

The idea is that magnets placed against the skin influence the circulation of iron in the blood, which helps deliver nutrients to the joints. Sounds great, right? A simple, easy and effective way to bring more blood flow and nutrients to painful areas. But iron in the blood is not ferromagnetic (attracted to magnets), and commercially available magnetic products will not alter blood flow. If such theories were valid, the human body would explode when placed in a MRI machine. 

Magnets are also supposed to produce a force called a magnetic field. Magnet advocates claim that sufferers need more magnetic fields in their bodies, which the magnets create. But static magnets sitting in jewelry and shoe inserts have magnetic fields that do not change. If the theory is correct it would only provide a benefit if the magnets generated magnetic fields, which only occurs when an electrical current flows through them.

Are they harmful?

Magnets are considered safe when placed on the skin. However, they present a danger to those using pacemakers, defibrillators or insulin pumps because magnets can interfere with these devices. People with metal implants should also avoid magnets. Magnet therapy has not been tested for safety during pregnancy and infancy, and there is some evidence in animals that it could damage the brain of a developing embryo or newborn. One animal study indicated that sperm might be adversely affected by magnet therapy.

Don’t Be Fooled 

Most of us try these types of devices when symptoms are at their worst, and when they subside, we think ‘Wow! It really worked! And if started when symptoms were mild, then the reverse may occur, leading to the conclusion it made the pain worse. The reality? Our pain has its own cycle, ebbing and flowing with activity, weather, stress levels, or other causes unrelated to the device. So don’t be fooled into believing either result without a longer, more reasonable exposure.

Twenty five years ago I was desperate to get relief. At the time several colleagues were selling a product line of magnets claiming they helped pain. They not only wanted me to buy the products, but as a convert and chronic pain sufferer, to then sell them to my patients. Eager for any safe remedy I put insoles in my shoes, pads on my spine and purchased a rather expensive mattress topper all filled with “strategically placed, research directed strength magnets.” I was told to wait three months before passing judgement. In the meantime I was fascinated so I attended a meeting hoping to add me to a list of providers selling the products as well. I turned out it was a pyramid scheme.

Selling wasn’t the primary goal, recruiting and profiting from others was. I was shocked, it felt like a semi-religious event with avid backers screaming accolades every few minutes. It was horrifying. Not to be swayed by the antics, and still fervently hoping for relief, I used the products for months. The results? A lot of very expensive, useless magnets that wouldn’t even hold up a picture on my refrigerator.

It’s probably a placebo effect 

It’s possible that some people who use magnets and feel positive health effects are experiencing a placebo effect. A placebo is a stand-in, or “dummy,” treatment designed to deceive a recipient. Researchers use placebos to control experiments because placebos are supposed to be ineffective as a treatment for a condition. When researchers use a placebo, and it actually improves the condition, it’s called “the placebo effect.” Scientists don’t know for sure why the placebo effect happens. It may be because the subject simply believes that the fake treatment can make them feel better, and with that fervent belief, they do.

It might work this way 

There is one possible bright spot on the horizon. Bioengineers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have designed an innovative method that may succeed where other pain therapies have previously failed. They designed a hydrogel using hyaluronic acid, which is a molecule uniquely capable of retaining water and has key roles in skin moisture and skin aging. Additionally, hyaluronic acid can be found between the cells in the brain and in the spinal cord.

After creating this hyaluronic hydrogel, the scientists filled it with small magnetic particles. Then, they grew a type of brain cell -called dorsal root ganglion neurons – inside the gel. Next, the team applied a magnetic force on the particles, which enabled the transmission of the magnetic field through the hydrogel and to the neural cells. By measuring the calcium ions in the neurons, the scientists were able to tell whether the cells responded to the magnetic pull – and they did!

Finally, the researchers steadily increased the magnetic force and found that doing so reduced the neuron’s pain signaling. In an attempt to return to a stable state, the brain cells adapted to the magnetic stimulation by decreasing their pain signals.

The lead researcher Andy Kah Ping Tay, believes “these results show that through exploiting ‘neural network homeostasis,’ which is the idea of returning a biological system to a stable state, it is possible to lessen the signals of pain through the nervous system. Ultimately, this could lead to new ways to provide therapeutic pain relief.”

Constant pain and frustration can make us susceptible to misleading or outright inappropriate and deceitful companies that seek to profit from our suffering. Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support claims that commercially available magnetic therapy devices work, wearable magnets remain extremely popular. Global sales of therapeutic magnets are estimated to be at least $1 billion a year.

Tune in next week for more.

-main image courtesy of

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