This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 19, Issue 2, from 2006.
Although magnetism was known and exploited by the third century BC or earlier, it still has a capacity to amaze and confuse and it is probably for this reason that it seems to be seeing a particular resurgence as a quack therapy and for a lot of other dubious uses.
With my first-year students, when I am discussing the idea of a force, I usually take a pair of small but powerful neodymium permanent magnets and put them on top of an overhead projector with similar poles facing one another. Moving one then forces the other to slide across the surface of the projector as a result of magnetic repulsion even though they are separated by a centimetre or so.
This almost spooky action at a distance can seem even weirder when I pass the magnets around the class and ask the students to attempt to push similar poles together. The feeling this gives is of having a slippery but dense jelly in between the magnets — of course, in reality, the only physical substance in between them is air, the repulsion being provided by the magnetic interaction.
This doesn’t mean that magnetism is not well understood by physicists. It is, but the description tends to be rather mathematical and this is perhaps another reason that even physics students can find magnetism difficult to understand at a reasonably deep level as they tend to regard electromagnetism as one of the more intractable subjects in their syllabus. For the general public, then, it may seem perfectly reasonable that this mysterious force of nature which is omnipresent on our planet (in the form of the Earth’s magnetic field) may be harnessed in the service of good health and wellbeing.
On the web and elsewhere you will find no shortage of suppliers offering small powerful magnets in a variety of shapes and sizes along with suggestions as to how they should be employed to deal with specific ailments. For instance a UK company called MagneCare tells us that one of their product ranges, MagneDisk magnets:
“give effective local treatment of any aches, pains and sprains, anywhere on the body;– the head, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, spine, lower back, hips, knees, ankles, feet and acupressure points”
They will also provide magnets for producing “magnetic water” — something which if it really existed would have probably gained its discoverer a Nobel Prize. Drinking magnetic water, apparently:
“reduces excess acidity and bile in the digestive system and regulates movement of the bowels, expelling all accumulation of poisonous matter, soothes the nerves and helps clear arteries”.
Just don’t lick your credit cards after drinking it, though. The company’s tests show that magnetic water can be made by placing a beaker of water on a magnet for 60 minutes or taping a magnet to the side of the vessel. And don’t forget Tamiflu — according to a Dr Philpott of Oklahoma:
“During a flu epidemic, take magnetically treated water every 4 hours for prevention or relief of symptoms”.
(By the way, this will work better for avian flu than other varieties as birds are well known to have a magnetic sense that they use for navigation). In fact, so popular have so-called magnetic therapies proven to be, that, according to the Sunday Times on 26 February 2006:
“NHS accountants are so impressed by the cost-effectiveness of a ‘magnetic leg wrap’ called 4UlcerCare that from Wednesday doctors will be allowed to prescribe it to patients” .
Now, you may have picked up from my tone that I am a little sceptical about the efficacy of these therapies but is there any evidence (other than the testimonies on the suppliers’ websites) that any of them might actually work? Well some of the websites that are promoting these therapies refer to a pilot study on 50 adults that was conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, which compared the effects of real magnets and false magnets on knee pain in people who had had polio.
However, a pilot study is only ever meant to be used to help decide whether it is worth continuing with a full study – and given the small numbers of patients and differences in the characteristics of the group using magnets and the control group, this study really has no significance at all. Dr Stephen Barrett gives a detailed discussion of this trial and others on the pages of the US Quackbusters organization. He also discusses a number of North American legal cases where suppliers have been taken to task for their false or exaggerated claims. He concludes that there is no scientific basis for the idea that small permanent magnets can either relieve pain or make any difference whatsoever to the course of an illness.
So by all means, continue to be a little mystified by magnetism and enjoy decorating your kitchen with fridge magnets but, if you were thinking of spending money on magnetic mattresses, bandages, golf shoes or underpants to cure your ailments, I’d suggest that you just stick to your homeopathic tablets.
From the archives, Steve Donnelly takes a look at MagneCare’s claims that magnetism can cure all manner of ailments
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