Jun 14 2010

Magnetic Healing Through the Ages

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.

14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “Magnetic Healing Through the Ages”

  1. kris says:

    It’s interesting that even with the quackery dating from time immemorial, magnets are utterly crucial to modern medicine. NMR imaging, for instance, is probably the most versatile and important piece of diagnostic and research equipment in many areas of medicine. And even beyond that, magnets are crucial components of computers that make it and so many other kinds of diagnostics and research plausible, let alone possible.

  2. skrile says:

    @kris – That’s the big difference between science and belief. The scientific method focuses on the useful and disgards the useless. Magnets are valuable – just not for direct healing….as far as we know 🙂

  3. Jim Shaver says:

    Indeed, kris. The disc drive that stores all the data collected by an MRI machine, for example, contains some of the strongest permanent magnets on Earth (to move the actuator quickly across the disc surfaces), and the discs contain trillions of microscopic magnets to store the encoded data bits. Scientists and engineers understand the force of magnetism pretty darn well; but the quacks tend to dismiss what they don’t comprehend.

  4. ccbowers says:

    I’m surprised that more people don’t claim an MRI cured their (fill in the blank). Or maybe they do and I havent noticed

  5. SARA says:

    It is amazing how one fact can be twisted out of all proportion by minds that want to see something.
    Noncritical Thinking 101.
    The body’s natural ability to heal itself of minor infections and wounds has been misinterpreted by many to be due to any number of things, including magnets. What you see depends on what you are looking for. So if want to know why you got better and by chance were carrying around a magnet – voila you have discovered the magic cure.
    Now you tell others, some portion of them feel better while carrying the magic magnet proving the theory. And the many who didn’t get better are the anomaly. The believers tell two friends and so.

  6. BillyJoe7 says:



    This study is immediately suspicious. They have 45 subjects and 3 test groups. Instead of putting 15 in each group, they distribute them in groups of 30, 15, and 10. This suggests that the patients were not randomly allocated to each group. Otherwise I can’t see why tehy made the group sizes different.

    (Unfortunately, although there is a tag “free article” I can’t seem to access the article, only the abstract)

  7. mewol says:


    Try here for the full version: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/161/1/93

    According to the authors, the change in group size was due to losing access to the facility’s MRI system.

    Of more concern to me is that while the subjects were sorta-kinda blinded, the rater wasn’t blinded at all.

    It’s an interesting idea, at least.

  8. David M. Brooks says:

    I’ve always felt that Mesmer was given an unjustly hard time by old Ben and the skeptics of the day. For the time, he developed his ideas in a reasonably scientific way, he started with actual magnets and discarded them, and did experiments to develop his actually successful treatments.

    Mesmer was not a charlatan and the rejection of his techniques by conventional medicine (but not his theory) was an error, especially given the poverty of effective treatments in medicines of the day, especially before the discovery of effective chemical anesthetics.

    To say that Mesmer was “only” using hypnosis is to ignore the fact that hypnosis is only a new name given by Braid for Mesmerism without Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” theory. But Braid’s own name for hypnosis was based on an also incorrect idea that Mesmerism/hypnosis was a form a sleep, an error that Braid eventually recognized.

    I think that the rejection of Mesmer and Mesmerism was a failure, not a triumph, of skepticism.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    Thanks Pinky.


    Okay, no firm conclusions can be drawn from this study.

    Firstly, as the small numbers suggest, this was a pilot study.
    Secondly it was not double-blinded.
    Thirdly, it used existing study groups, which explains why there were unequal numbers in the three groups and confiming my suspicion that the there was not random allocation.

    However the effect was rather large indicating that a controlled clinical trial would be worthwhile.

  10. David,

    I disagree. Mesmer was not taking medical science in a useful direction. Essentially he was treating psychosomatic illnesses with a placebo effect, and constructed an elaborate theory around that as an explanation. That theory was fanciful and not evidence-based or rigorous, and was rightly rejected.

    The fact that there was a kernel of utility in the hypnosis component of his interventions is a minor consideration, in my opinion, and does not rescue him from being a crank. It’s like saying blood letting was not a bad idea because it is useful for polycythemia.

    This is a core problem in medical science – separating specific effects that reflect underlying biology from non-specific therapeutic effects that do not. Mesmer was just another crank who confused non-specific for specific effects, which provided confirmation bias for his fanciful theories.

  11. Nate says:

    If any of you watch the show Lost, I think it’s a good example of the mainstream promotion of healing through magnetism.

    The Island the characters are trapped has large deposits of electromagnetism, which has miraculously cured many people from ailments such as cancer, spinal injury, gunshot wounds, and many other injuries.

    I’m aware it’s a work of fiction, and I don’t know if the role it plays in the show is for entertainment purposes exclusively or to server as a subtle promotion.

    For those interested.


  12. Calli Arcale says:

    My first exposure to the work of Mesmer came through my fascination with the work of Edgar Allen Poe. The story “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is quite arresting, though clearly preposterous. Well, preposterous in modern hindsight. Though it’s finctional, Poe did not indicate that when he first published it in 1845, and many readers believed it to be true. Several “magnetic healers” even wrote to claim they had achieved similar feats. (In the story, a dying man is mesmerized at the point of death to determine what will happen. Mesmerism keeps the man alive, suspended, for several months. Upon awakening, the man screams, “Dead! Dead!” and collapses into a “detestable putrescence”. It’s definitely one of the more vivid of Poe’s stories.) Eventually, he did confess to the hoax, and ultimately the widespread acceptance of it is evidence not merely of the gullibility of readers but of the extraordinary vividness of his prose.

    The story could not have been successful (either as fiction or hoax) had the general public not been highly intrigued with the idea of “animal magnetism”, nor widely convinced of its power.

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