Features December 2005 Issue

Magnets, Copper, And Arthritis

Despite a lack of evidence, millions of Americans are convinced that copper bracelets and therapeutic magnets relieve pain.

The disconnect between scientific evidence and anecdotal support has never been more apparent than in the use of bracelets and magnets to relieve arthritis pain. The Annals of Internal Medicine  reports that 18 percent of all arthritis and fibromyalgia patients have used magnets or copper bracelets. The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates annual sales of the devices at $500 million in the U.S. and $5 billion worldwide.

People continue to wear, walk on, lie on, and sit on magnets even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) has refused to approve them. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) considers copper bracelets to be in the same category as snake oil. Nonetheless, proponents of both make unsupported claims of pain relief.

Copper bracelets: Faith vs. fact
Some companies that manufacture copper bracelets claim that the copper dissolves in perspiration, is absorbed into the skin, and provides relief. Others claim that the skin produces electrical charges that react to the copper and subsequently travel along acupuncture meridians at the wrist. Neither theory has ever been proven. Says Tanya Edwards, M.D., medical director at The Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, “I would not recommend copper bracelets for any condition. But due to the lack of side effects and negligible expense, I would also not advise against their use if a patient believes they work.”

Magnets: Healing fields
The case for magnets may be a bit stronger. Magnets produce a type of energy called magnetic fields. The majority of magnets marketed for health purposes are “static” magnets—their magnetic fields do not change. They are sold in shoe inserts, mattress pads, belts, cushions, and bracelets, among other products. Proponents claim magnets work in a variety of ways: They change how cells function, they alter or restore the balance between cell death and cell growth, they increase the temperature of an area of the body being treated, or they increase the flow of blood, as well as the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to tissues. But for magnets to work, claim medical professionals, they would have to affect the physiology of the neurons that deliver information—such as that produced by pain—to the brain, and this connection has never been established.

Static magnets differ from electromagnets, which generate magnetic fields when an electrical current flows through them. They have been used in conventional medicine to speed the healing of fractured bones and to map areas of the brain. Experimentally, they have been used to treat fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and headaches.

Clinical-trial results on both types of magnets have been mixed. Four trials found no significant difference in pain relief between static magnets and placebo treatments. Four other trials found a significant difference in pain relief. Five studies concluded that electromagnets significantly reduce pain. Skeptics point out that the relief may have come from whatever holds the magnet in place, or from a placebo effect. Also, there is little agreement regarding magnet strength, size, length of use, and placement.

Side effects
Magnets are generally safe, but manufacturers do not recommend them for pregnant women, for those who use pacemakers, defibrillators, or insulin pumps, for individuals who use a patch that delivers medication through the skin, or for those who’ve had an aneurysm clipped. The NIH reports that people who benefit from magnets usually see results quickly. (If you buy one, make sure it has a 30-day return policy if it doesn’t work.)

Making the decision
The case for copper bracelets is weak. Buy and use one if you think it will relieve pain, but do so knowing that its effectiveness is not supported by medical evidence. More research has been conducted on the use of magnets, but the findings are far from conclusive. Dr. Edwards gives them a qualified endorsement: “I would consider recommending magnet therapy for patients with osteoarthritis if the expense was not significant, but only as one part of their tool box for pain.”

Bottom line: No matter how harmless, any unproven remedy can become harmful if it stops or delays you from seeking treatment from a knowledgeable physician.