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Magnetic Healing Through the Ages

by Steven Novella, Jun 14 2010

The notion that magnets can be used for healing is as old as knowledge of magnets themselves. Several ancient cultures, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, and others, discovered natural magnetic rocks – lodestones. They had a hard time explaining the unusual properties of these rocks given the scientific knowledge at the time, and came up with fanciful explanations like minerals have souls too. This was compatible with the general belief that everything has an “essence”.

It then seemed natural that since living things have an energy and essence, and certain rocks contain an energy and essence, that such rocks could be used to heal illness – to transfer their energy to a living being. Even today this idea has an emotional and even rational appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be healed by the equivalent of McCoy’s medical scanner – invisible and painless energy fields work noninvasively to return our tissues to health at the cellular level. When we fantasize about future medicine, that is what we imagine.

It is no surprise then that through the centuries magnetic healing has been very popular – and its popularity has only increased with advancing scientific understanding of magnetism, and eventually electromagnetism.

What I found particularly interesting while investigation the history of magnetic therapy is that the relationship between medical academia and popular marketing hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. In the 16th century Paracelcus (a prominant early medical academic) investigated the claims made by the purveyors of magnetic devices and treatment and found that they were nothing but quackery. This is especially interesting given the state of medical science at the time. I would have thought that at the time of Paracelcus the medical community was searching for new paradigms of treatment, and certainly magnets were as useful (as useless) and most interventions of the time, and were actually superior in that they were safer. Paracelcus himself focused much of his attention on mineral treatments, many of which were very toxic.

In 1600 William Gilbert wrote De Magnete in which he actually described detailed experiments with magnets and electricity and systematically debunked hundreds of popular health claims for such treatments. This establishment debunking of magnetic therapy continued into the 17th century with Thomas Browne. (For a more detailed treatment of this history, read this excellent – although a tad dated when it comes to the risks of EMF – review by Roger Macklis.) Given how primitive scientific methods and medical knowledge were at this time the claims of magnetic healers must have been especially fantastical, and their treatments remarkably worthless.

But “The Man” was not able to keep down magnetic healing. In the 18th and 19th centuries Franz Mesmer dramatically increased the popularity of magnetic healing with his “animal magnetism.” He thought that animal magnetism was a unique force of nature that flowed like a fluid through living things. He also thought he could manipulate it through a combination of hypnotism and laying on of hands. After a high-profile debunking by a commission led by Benjamin Franklin, however, Mesmer’s fame faded and he died poor and forgotten. But his legacy survived – magnetic healing remained very popular to this day.

Today the relationship between magnets, popular health claims, and the medical/scientific community remains the same. The public is fascinated by notion of healing with electricity, electromagnetic field, or magnetic energy. The fact that many medical interventions are legitimately based upon electromagnetism increases this popularity. People understand that we use magnetic resonance imaging to peer into the body. A recent study showed that transcranial magnetic stimulation may be an effective treatment for migraines. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) is a proven treatment for chronic pain. We routinely measure electrical (and now even magnetic) brain waves to assess brain function.

Electromagnetism is the real energy of life, and therefore it is very plausible that all sorts of magnetic and electrical interventions will be useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

But there is a market for countless quack magnetic devices exploiting this popular appeal. You can buy what are essentially refrigerator magnets to strap to your elbow or knee, or put in your shoe or under your pillow. These static magnetic fields have no demonstrable effect on blood flow or living tissue, and their fields are so shallow they barely extend beyond the cloth in which they are encased, let alone to any significant tissue depth. And the scientific evidence for efficacy is negative.

Even more absurd are magnetic bracelets that are supposed to have a remote healing effect on the body. Plausibility plummets even further.

The lack of a tight relationship between scientific evidence and academic acceptance of medical claims on one hand, and the marketing and popular appeal of those claims on the other – is eternally frustrating. This disconnect appears to be especially true for claims for magnetic devices and treatments – a disconnect that has survived for centuries.

10 Responses to “Magnetic Healing Through the Ages”

  1. Michael says:

    They had a hard time explanation the unusual properties of these rocks given the scientific…”

    You appear to have a small typo in the first paragraph, but it is otherwise a truly interesting article.

  2. Chris Howard says:

    My wife recently had spinal surgery, and the doctor gave us this “bone growth stimulator.” It is, of course, a magnet, which is, as I understand it (Please note I am not a medical professional) supposed to stimulate blood flow, and bone growth, around the hardware they had to “install” into my wife’s neck. She wears it for four hours, charges it over night and does it all over again the next day.
    I, of course (big surprise) was/am skeptical. It sounds like there are legitimate therapies that use magnets. How does one tell which are beneficial and which are pure woo?

    The box that it came in had a picture of a man, of the affluent gentry, amiable to the eye, with mustachioed grin, and gleam behind his monocaled eye, fine grooming and festooned in impeccable haberdasheries. His claim was plain and to the point: The Right Honorable Reverend Doctor C. S. Howard’s esq. “Patented Magical Cervical Collar” will not only strengthen your bones, but invigorate you, put the spring back into your step, raise your libido, cure excess hair growth and baldness.
    Eradicate consumption, gout, the vapors, and dispepsia. It increases mental awareness, eyesight, hearing and conquers erectile dysfunction (I’m guessing it’s magnetic pull) stimulates weight loss and muscle growth and is a pleasant to the eye, why in many areas of this fine nation of ours, it is considered stylish, popular among the landed aristocracy of New York city, Chicago, and Milwaukee, a much needed accessory to the buffalo coats, so popular in those circles, these days.
    He said it works by utilizing ancient Atlantian technology, rediscovered by the Pharos, and royal courts of the far off Near East, and Mongol variety, rediscovered by him, over 15 years ago, while on safari in Antarctica.
    He even has a video (youtube) in which he procures a small beggar boy from the audience, of one of his traveling shows, lame and downtrodden, his gait uneven and laboured, on account of his two peg legs, and one blind eye. It was difficult, at first, for the kindly Dr. to give the miracle collar to the wretched soul (apparently the Dr., unknowingly was talking into the boys bad ear, which had the sad yet comical effect of confusing the poor lad) but when the boy received his salvation, like Arthur crowned king, the collar around his neck, dancing, eye patch torn off and thrown to the side, claims form the boy of perfect hearing, sight, and a renewed interest in the fairer sex all came to life in the young man!

    What are we to think? ;-)

    PS My wife really did have spinal surgery.

    • Max says:

      Well if it uses ancient Atlantian technology, it has to work. Ancient Atlantians were way ahead of us technologically.

      Did the surgeon give you this thing?

      • Marcel says:

        Max, if the ancient Atlantians were “way ahead of us technologically”, then why are there no (verifiable) traces of their so-called civilization ? I mean, we Europeans (and others), as soon as we had enough tech to travel the seas, spread out across the world. Why believe this myth that they were “so far ahead”, and then suddenly “disappeared” ?

        Really.

    • G says:

      Last I checked, very strong *pulsing* magnetic field therapy has shown some effects. It’s been a while, and what I read at the time was about preliminary research; maybe this is an application of that. The fact that your wife has to recharge the device suggests that it’s strong/pulsing.

      Static magnetic field “therapy” claims, though, they are silly. If they did actually do anything like they claim, your blood would pool in the area right under the magnet.

  3. Chris Howard says:

    Actually, the surgeon did, indeed give us the gizmo.

  4. Chris Howard says:

    See, that’s what I mean… thing is he’s board certified, and teaches the procedure he used on my wife, as well as several others at UT San Antonio. He’s very, very credentialed. She doesn’t use it anymore, not because I have voiced my skepticism (partially because I’m not a medical professional, so it would be the argument from ignorance) but rather because it is uncomfortable.

    • Ken says:

      Chris, that’s …. just freakin’ unbelievable!

      I would recommend going to healthgrades.com and writing up a full review, just so others could be aware that the guy’s a quack.

  5. Gregg says:

    Steve-
    I still feel this article did not sufficiently address f’ing magnets and how they work. You are, after all, a scientist. How can I know you aren’t just lying and gettin’ me pissed?

  6. Stephen John says:

    This is no different than pills. Placebo affect. Believe it hard enough and trust in something other than the negative consequences of what is being endured and ‘something ‘might just work. On the other hand, dependency and relying on ‘magnets’ to heal could be dangerous if not fatal if put in the wrong hands of a person who might need true medical treatment. Every gizmo including New Age anything is NOTHING new, it goes back a few thousand years and keeps re-erupting with new labels..how quick we forget (conveniently).