Magnets Provide Amusement, But Not Health Benefits

Over the years, the claims for health benefits of magnets have provided me with much amusement.

Here are just a few examples:

  • A skeptic pointed out that if magnets in health products really attracted red blood cells as claimed, an MRI scan with magnets many orders of magnitude stronger would be deadly: your blood would explode out from your skin all over your body.
  • A friend believed magnets relieved her pain; I told her studies showed they didn’t work; she said that was because the studies weren’t done with her brand of magnets, Nikken magnets, which really did work; I showed her negative studies that were done with Nikken magnets; she rejected the studies, saying science doesn’t know everything; she knew her magnets worked; her mind was made up and she wasn’t about to let me confuse her with the facts.
  • I heard a magnetic mattress pad salesman tell his audience that the negative magnetism was greater at night because the moon was out, and the positive magnetism was greater during the day because the sun was out.

Imagine my delight when I found an email in my inbox with the subject line “Do you have any interested [sic] in our Magnetic Energy Bracelet?”The message said “Hope my email will bring large profit for your company in the future. [I don’t have a company.] Have you heard Magnetic Energy Bracelet? It’s powerful, can keep healthy for Men and Women. We have more than 200 designs for you choice, stainless steel bracelet, titanium steel bracelets (TA1 Grade), ceramics bracelets, tungsten steel bracelet, etc. The stainless steel bracelet is made of 316L, 85.7% of tungsten in tungsten steel bracelet.” The company that sells them is based in Guanghzou, China, as you might have guessed from the language. They are unbelievably inexpensive, all under $10 and some selling for as little as a penny apiece when purchased in bulk.

The email included pictures of attractive bracelets in various colors. Below the picture section was a section titled “The Function of Elements,” with pictures showing how the elements appear in the bracelets.

  • Germanium
    • Unimpeded blood pressure
    • Enhancement of human immunity
    • The wide antineoplastic function
    • Anti-carcinogen function
    • Prevention and treatment of diseases
  • Anion
    • Restrict oxidation of body cell
    • Activate cell
    • Strengthen immune ability
    • Anti-inflammation
    • Adjust nerve
    • Purify air
    • Antibacterial, deodorization
  • Far infrared
    • Increase metabolism
    • Improve immune
    • Adjust blood pressure
    • Improve arthralgia
    • Adjust autonomic nerve
    • Reduce fattiness
    • Balance body’s PH degree
  • Magnet
    • More restful sleep
    • Increase tissue oxygenation
    • Increase cellular oxygen level
    • Improve blood circulation
    • Improve anti-infective ability

This is high comedy. For a start, anion, far infrared, and magnet do not appear in the Periodic Table of Elements. I can understand how magnets and germanium can be built into a bracelet, but how do you suppose they add anion and far infrared? And the claims of health benefits are mostly vague and garbled. What do you suppose “adjust nerve” and “activate cell” mean? I had a good laugh, and I don’t feel any need to address any of these claims, because as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

I wonder how many of the companies that get this email actually order the bracelets and sell them? The very thought boggles my mind. But magnetic health products are big business: a billion dollars of sales a year worldwide and $300 million a year in the US. For example, at this website you can buy magnetic mattress pads, a magnetic power pad for back and hip, magnets for body parts, magnets for pets (collars and pet beds), magnetic massagers, magnetic finger and toe rings, all kinds of jewelry, even magnetic leather necklaces. Other websites offer braces, insoles, seat pads, headbands, pillows, sleep masks, etc.

Do magnets have health benefits?

Pulsed magnetic fields induce an electrical field, and have been used to treat fractures that are not healing properly. Transcranial magnetic stimulation has diagnostic and therapeutic uses, such as treating resistant depression. But the effects are due to the electrical field, not to magnetism.

Static magnets, on the other hand, have no health benefits.

  • The Quackwatch article concludes:
    There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today’s products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface.
  • The NCCIH says:
    Magnets have not been proven to work for any health-related purpose.
  • The FDA says:
    To date, the FDA has not cleared for marketing any magnets promoted for medical uses. Because these devices do not have marketing clearance, they are in violation of the law, and are subject to regulatory action. Action is taken on a case by case basis depending on the significance of the medical claims being made. Significant claims that are likely to trigger regulatory action include, but are not limited to, treatment of cancer, HIV, AIDS, asthma, arthritis, and rheumatism.
  • The Wikipedia article says:
    Magnet therapy, magnetic therapy, or magnotherapy is a pseudoscientific alternative medicine practice involving the use of static magnetic fields. Practitioners claim that subjecting certain parts of the body to magnetostatic fields produced by permanent magnets has beneficial health effects. These physical and biological claims are unproven and no effects on health or healing have been established. Although hemoglobin, the blood protein that carries oxygen, is weakly diamagnetic (when oxygenated) or paramagnetic (when deoxygenated) the magnets used in magnetic therapy are many orders of magnitude too weak to have any measurable effect on blood flow.
  • systematic review of randomized trials of static magnets for reducing pain concluded “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief.”

Conclusion: Harmless entertainment

These “magnetic energy bracelets” are not likely to cause any harm, and they may do some good. People may get pleasure from wearing an attractive piece of jewelry. They may experience a placebo response: if they believe the bracelets can keep them healthy, they are likely to feel better subjectively even though there is no objective change in their health. The price is low, and there’s little chance that anyone would be tempted to use these bracelets in lieu of effective conventional medical treatment, since the health claims are so vague and incoherent.

If you subscribe to the old adage “Laughter is the best medicine,” you might think this is a useful product. It made me laugh heartily; I got a lot of enjoyment out of reading the e-mail. Wearing magnetic energy bracelets may not improve your health, but reading about them can be a source of harmless entertainment.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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