Magnets and their Use in Medicine

Of course some will be skeptical that magnetic therapy is a scam, stating that they can vaguely recall accounts of doctors, scientists, researchers etc using magnets to diagnose and treat medical problems. And this is perfectly true. However this apparent contradiction results from there being two types of ‘magnetic therapy’.

To explain this, first we need to differentiate between two types of medicine. One is conventional medicine and the other is alternative medicine. Conventional medicine is what doctors are trained in and what we find in our hospitals. Alternative medicine is what unqualified and untrained therapists practise in their kitchen or promote on the Internet. Of course conventional medicine is more correctly called scientific medicine and alternative medicine is more correctly called unproven, superstitious or pseudoscientific medicine. If an alternative medicine is scientifically shown to be effective it quickly dumps its ‘alternative’ tag and simply becomes ‘medicine’. Alternative therapies yearn for the respect of conventional therapies.

Magnets are definitely used in both types of medicine, conventional and alternative. However the phrase ‘magnetic therapy’ as used by the general public almost always refers to the ‘magnetic therapy’ of alternative medicine.

Problems arise when people confuse the positive and proven results of magnetic fields used in conventional medicine with the bogus claims of alternative medicine’s ‘magnetic therapy’.

You may reply that magnets are magnets, they all produce magnetic fields, and whether used by hospitals or alternative therapists, their curative potential is the same. However this fallacy rests on the belief that all magnets are the same. They’re not. The hospitals use powerful and expensive electromagnets while the magnetic therapists are trying to do the same job with not much more than fridge magnets.

To understand why this makes a difference we need to differentiate between the two types of magnets, either of which can be used in the field of medicine, both conventional and alternative.

There are basically two types of magnets — electromagnets and permanent magnets. Both produce magnetic fields. The type of magnet that people are most familiar with is the permanent magnet. This is the sort that you played with at school to attract nails and iron filings and the type that holds notes on your fridge. Permanent magnets have been known throughout most of history and can be found in nature.

Electromagnets on the other hand are recent inventions and, as the name suggests, utilise electricity to create a temporary magnetic field. The magnetic field that electromagnets produce can be switched on and off. Switching the field on and off very quickly is known as a pulsed magnetic field. And not only that, but electromagnets also generate a changing magnetic field which can cause electric currents to flow in their surroundings. The magnetic field of permanent magnets is static and can not be switched off. It’s on all the time. And unlike electromagnets, static permanent magnets do not induce electric currents. (Faraday’s law states that ‘An electric field is induced in any region of space in which a magnetic field is changing with time’.) Update: I’ve also read where some people argue that when used in the likes of electric motors and generators, permanent magnets with static fields do cause the induction of voltages and currents, so you don’t need an electromagnet. But to do this the permanent magnet must move continuously in relation to the electrical conductor, or the conductor must move. One or the other must move, if both are at rest, there is no interaction. Thus when a permanent magnet is worn as a necklace, in a shoe insole, in a bracelet or belt, in back and neck braces, in pillows and in mattress underlays etc, there will be no relative movement between body and magnet and thus the static, unchanging magnetic field will have no impact on charged particles such as rouge electrons that might be in the adjacent body tissue. One person commented that tossing and turning during sleep would generate a changing magnetic field from a magnetic underlay, but lifting your body off the mattress as you turned would be very infrequent, and because the depth these magnets penetrate is very shallow, the field would likely disappear as you turned. Also the field effects, if felt, would be completely random and thus highly unlikely to bring about some desired effect in unhealthy tissue.

So which type of magnet do conventional medicine and alternative medicine practitioners commonly use?

Basically speaking, conventional medicine uses electromagnets whereas alternative medicine practitioners use permanent magnets. Although both types of magnet obviously produce magnetic fields, the strength of these fields and their effects can be vastly different. Think of comparing a 1908 Model T vintage car to a modern Ferrari sports car. Technically they’re both cars, but the difference in their performance is worlds apart. You can’t drive a Model T and claim that it performs like a Ferrari. Likewise you can’t use a permanent magnet and claim that it has the same effect as a pulsed electromagnet.

But if conventional medicine really does use magnetic fields, doesn’t that mean that some form of magnet can cure, just as magnetic therapists say they can? Yes, to a degree. Pulsed electromagnetic fields have been found to aid healing in some bone fractures, perhaps some types of wounds and to reduce certain types of pain for example. However they do not reduce pain in general or increase blood circulation etc as claimed by magnetic therapists. And they most certainly don’t cure cancer. For a very few specific aliments the use of highly specialised magnets, usually pulsed electromagnets, can have positive health effects.

One other area of confusion often mentioned by the public and encouraged by magnetic therapists is the MRI scanner, a very powerful, very expensive, very complicated medical tool. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging which uses an extremely powerful magnetic field produced by an electromagnet, along with radio waves, computers etc, to produce 3D images of the inside of the body. However it must be remembered that MRI scanners cure no one. It is merely a diagnostic device, albeit a very impressive one. No matter how long you spend inside one, you will be just as ill when you come out as when you went in. It merely helps reveal what your illness might be. Other means must then be employed to cure you. The magnetic field from an MRI has no therapeutic effect on the body, anymore than a doctor’s stethoscope has an effect on the heart. Magnetic therapists capitalise on the public’s awe of the MRI and its mysterious magnetic field and allow them to believe that the MRI’s diagnostic power has somehow been converted into healing power and that they can have some of this healing power in their magnetic underlay.

There’s nothing wrong in claiming that hospitals may use magnetic fields to diagnose you and even treat you in rare cases, but it’s utterly bogus to claim you can perform the same treatment with a silly magnetic underlay.

So why can’t this limited success with magnets be carried over into the alternative medicine version of magnetic therapy? Well it could be, but unfortunately magnetic therapists refuse to use the same tools that conventional medicine uses. They replace the highly specialised, expensive, powerful, pulsed electromagnets with simple, cheap, weak, static magnets. They can’t even treat the few aliments that conventional medicine can, yet they have the nerve to claim that their el’ cheapo magnets actually have more curative powers than those of conventional medicine.

They try and convince you that since magnetic fields are a valid part of conventional medicine, supported by scientific research, clinical studies etc, that the use of their souped-up fridge magnets will give you the same health benefits, without the expense. They refuse to highlight the fact that they are comparing apples with oranges, that their magnets perform very differently to those used by hospitals. Remember that electromagnets produce varying, switchable magnetic fields whereas ordinary magnets do not. A lot of modern technology uses electromagnets, eg TVs, and if all electromagnets were replaced with ordinary magnets whose magnetic fields remain static, they simply wouldn’t work. Magnets and electromagnets are not always interchangeable.

So let’s recap because this is extremely important:

Conventional medicine uses electromagnets with pulsed magnetic fields that have proven health effects.Alternative medicine uses permanent magnets with static fields that have no proven health effects.

This is where people jump in with claims that there is plenty of proof that the magnets used in magnetic underlays etc produce positive health effects, such as pain reduction and increased blood flow. However these people are no different from those who claim proof of ghosts and UFOs exist. When pressed they always fail to produce this evidence. Some refer to real magnet studies while neglecting to mention that the study used pulsed magnetic fields, not the static magnets found in magnetic therapy products. Others use testimonials and anecdotes that are nothing more than uninformed opinions that are offered when no evidence exists. Others simply relate snippets of a study that a friend of a friend