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.

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