Q: My mother is 71, and her hands and feet are in a lot of pain. Pain medicine isn't an option. Do you think magnetic therapy for arthritis pain is promising?
A: Magnetic pain therapy involves holding or attaching specially formulated magnets to points on the body where patients routinely feel pain. It is a centuries-old treatment, with magnets touted to improve blood flow and increase the amount of available oxygen because of heat generated by magnetic fields.
Compared with traditional means of pain relief, magnetic therapy does have its charms. It is non-invasive, for example, and apparently non-addictive. That is a bonus, because addiction to prescription pain medication can be a problem. Magnets can be used over and over; they come in such forms as shoe inserts and arm and leg wraps, which are unobtrusive when worn. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that magnet therapy has helped athletes, including Yankee hurler Hideki Irabu and Denver Broncos' linebacker Bill Romanowski. Some physical therapists swear by magnets.
From the sheer numbers alone of companies selling magnetic therapy products, it's easy to believe that hard scientific evidence supports the many claims. Unfortunately, the various claims made over the years, not to mention poorly designed or conflicting studies, have led most scientists to relegate magnetic therapy to the realm of medical quackery.
Arthritis pain indeed is on the list of problems vendors say can be relieved; other conditions include headaches, carpal-tunnel syndrome, and sciatica. But until solid scientific studies determine that magnetic therapy is undoubtedly beneficial for arthritis sufferers, few physicians will extend themselves to endorse this approach.
It's not for want of trying. The National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine is funding a University of Virginia study on the effects of magnets on chronic pain. Another study, at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, found "significant and prompt" pain relief among its 50 subjects: patients experiencing pain from diagnosed post-polio syndrome. In fact, Baylor's 1997 study is often cited as proof that magnetic therapy works. Yet the very doctors who conducted the study are quick to warn that their results cannot necessarily be interpreted as applicable for patients suffering from other conditions. Other studies are reportedly underway at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University.
Should you choose to give this therapy a try while you wait for hard evidence, you're likely to find magnetic products reasonably priced. Shoe inserts, for instance, cost roughly $10-$15 a pair. A bracelet fitted with magnets runs under $20. If your budget is tight, however, getting reimbursed by your insurance carrier may prove difficult, if not impossible. In certain parts of Europe and Asia, therapeutic magnets are relatively commonplace; they are even considered reimbursable expenses in Germany, Israel and Japan. But in America's scientific community, this form of treatment remains on the fringe.
In other words, the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved the use of magnets for pain relief. Medicare won't reimburse costs related to magnetic therapy, and it's doubtful that any HMO would reimburse the expense, although it certainly never hurts to check. This means paying an out-of-pocket expense.
The jury is clearly still out on magnetic pain therapy, and until many more studies show conclusive results across a variety of disorders, most doctors would be loathe to recommend their use. On your side, however, is that magnetic therapy products seem inexpensive. There is also no evidence that using them is harmful. Inevitably, it is your pain and your own experience with traditional treatments that must guide you from here.