Polar Opposites

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While it might seem, from what magnet marketers tell us, that we've finally found a simple cure for pain, the jury is still out. Look more closely at the "studies" cited, and you'll find they are either unpublished works in progress—with no conclusive results—or anecdotal evidence from small numbers of people. But this doesn't mean we should dismiss magnets altogether. One study did conclusively show they had an effect. But a subsequent trial found quite the opposite, underscoring the need for further research.

The Positive Side

In a 1997 study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, researchers applied either magnetic therapy or a placebo device to 50 people diagnosed with postpolio syndrome, a condition that can result in muscular or arthritis-type pain. A full 75 percent of those who received the active treatment reported decreased pain, compared to only 19 percent of the placebo group. The researchers concluded that placing magnets over a pain trigger point "results in significant and prompt relief of pain."

The Negative Side

Earlier this year, researchers at Veterans Medical Center in Prescott, Arizona, set out to test whether magnets had an effect on chronic lower back pain. They gave a group of 20 with the condition either a real magnetic device or a fake one to wear for six hours a day, three days per week. Neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who had the real thing. The conclusion? At the end of the two-week trial, researchers found no difference between the pain reported by the two groups, leading them to conclude that the magnets had no significant effect.

Sources: Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; JAMA