Body Magnets

Magnetic therapy reached a peak in Europe in the late eighteenth century, about the time of the American Revolution. A then-popular Viennese physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815), mixed the application of magnets with hypnosis to convince patients of miraculous magnetic cures—until more reasonable minds (including Benjamin Franklin) exposed his fakery. The word mesmerize originated in that period. For entertaining reading about history of this magnetic fad see J. B. Livingston's The Driving Force (Har-

FIGURE 2.32 ► Health magnets are part of a recurring fad and are said to alleviate pain ("without a knife or a pill") in spite of the fact that the application of magnets has yet to be shown to be a valid health remedy using the type of controlled testing that meets established scientific medical standards.

FIGURE 2.32 ► Health magnets are part of a recurring fad and are said to alleviate pain ("without a knife or a pill") in spite of the fact that the application of magnets has yet to be shown to be a valid health remedy using the type of controlled testing that meets established scientific medical standards.

vard University Press, 1996). That author tells of London's "Celestial Bed" (containing 1500 pounds of magnets) where, for a princely sum, newly weds could spend their nuptial night, with the promise that "strong, beautiful, nay doubly-distilled children must infallibly be begotten."

In recent years there has been a resurgence of health-magnet nonsense. Some department stores, health-food stores, direct-marketing outlets, and tabloids have focused on the selling of "the healing power of magnets." The advertisements promise that magnets "free up the flow of energy, revitalizing the area" and "induce current into iron-rich red blood cells (hemoglobin), creating heat that soothes pain and swelling." Magnetic finger rings, bracelets, cervical collars, knee braces, shoe innersoles, pillows, sleeping pads, and body plasters are all for sale to a gullible public. The magnets are said to be a time-honored, long-proven treatment by world physicians to increase blood circulation, alleviate arthritis, suppress coughing, stop headaches, cure insomnia, reduce food cravings, and even remove facial wrinkles (Figure 2.32).

It is true that a small electric field properly applied across a bone fracture can speed the healing process. Magnetic fields have also been associated with our brain and nerve activity (Figure 2.29). There are indications that external magnetic fields can have minute responses in the body (e.g., the MRI described in Section 2.1.7, p. 42). However, such evidence has yet to translate into the glorious remedies promised by the health-magnet salesmen.

Health magnets have all the features of a pseudomedical hoax. The advertisements feed on the fear, suffering, and desperation of the gullible public. Sales depend on questionable testimonials, allusions to ancient "proven" oriental medical practices, untraceable references to endorsements by some "respected" foreign medical testing laboratories, or reference to a medical journal article, which, when examined, describes a test that fails to meet adequate standards of proof. Such advertisements are a clear warning that a strong sales pitch is being used to support faulty conclusions. Health improvements do occur for some users—simply because, by itself, the individual faith in an application produces some favorable reaction (placebo effect). The responsible American Medical Association requires careful, statistically significant, double-blind testing to validate and approve new health remedies. Not one of the magnetic health devices has passed such tests. In their Health News Letter of May 1999, the prestigious School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, advises readers to "Put your magnets on the fridge."

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