Do Magnets Help Relieve Low Back Pain?

From the WebMD Archives

March 7, 2000 (Baltimore) -- Treating people with chronic low back pain with one particular type of magnet did not help relieve the patients' pain, a study in the March 8 issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association reports. But experts say that much more research is needed on magnet therapy before concluding that it doesn't work.

Magnet therapy is an alternative medicine that has become increasingly popular for healing and reducing pain. Worldwide, $5 billion has been spent on magnets to treat everything from back pain to headaches. But very little research has been done to determine whether magnet therapy actually works.

"Magnets have been around for a very long time," says the study's lead author, Edward Collacott, MD. "There are reports that Cleopatra slept with a magnet on her forehead to help preserve her youth, and certainly we are seeing large numbers of people using them today. Even though we did not observe a reduction in low back pain with magnet use in our study, I am not prepared to say they don't work. Right now I would say that if people are having success with them in treating their condition, they shouldn't use this study as evidence to throw them out." Collacott is medical director for physical medicine and rehabilitation at the VA Medical Center in Prescott, Ariz.

The study looked at magnet use in 20 people with low back pain who had never tried magnets before to treat their condition. Study participants were asked to rate their pain using a pain scale and questionnaire. Measures of their spine flexibility were taken before and after treatment.

"The type of magnet used in this study was bipolar," says Collacott. Magnets typically have two poles, a north and a south. Some commercially available magnets have one pole facing the skin, called unipolar. Bipolar magnets' magnetic material is arranged so that both poles are facing the skin, he says.

People in the study used the magnets for six hours a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a period of one week. After a week with no treatment, they used something that looked exactly like the magnet but was not magnetized, called sham treatment.

The researchers found no differences between magnet therapy and sham therapy for pain reduction, Collacott says. "We found no adverse effects as a result of treatment. Based on this study, however, I am not prepared to say that magnets don't work. We could have used the wrong magnet, or used it incorrectly."

The researchers refused to reveal the manufacturer of the magnets used in the study, so WebMD contacted BIOflex Medical Magnetics Inc., one manufacturer of magnets used for therapy.

"I'm not surprised that this magnet didn't succeed in the study, because it's just not designed correctly," says Ted Zablotsky, MD, president of BIOflex. He says his company's magnets were not those used in the research, and he argues that the type of magnets used in the study are not effective. "All magnets are not created equal," he tells WebMD.

Zablotsky is also critical of the length of time magnetic therapy was used in the study. "I wouldn't expect results in 45 minutes. ... We have seen results as early as 20 minutes to overnight, but if it's not going to work, they will know within the first eight to 10 hours," he tells WebMD.

Edmund Chao, PhD, professor of orthopaedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University, who is not affiliated with the study, tells WebMD, "Magnets such as these generate very weak, static [or non-moving] fields. There is no evidence that static fields have any impact on the body," though pulsed, or moving, fields do have an impact.

According to David Trock, MD, assistant professor of rheumatology at Yale University School of Medicine, who also reviewed the study for WebMD. "We really need to keep an open mind about the use of magnets. I've heard a number of anecdotal stories on both sides, and this study is quite interesting because it provides us with one more piece of information in an area that needs much more research."

Vital Information:

  • A new study reports that patients were no more successful treating their low back pain with magnets than when they used a fake magnet for comparison.
  • A representative from an outside medical magnet company, who has a medical degree, notes the study's magnets were not designed to be therapeutic.
  • One physician commented that the magnetic field created by the products used in the study is different from the magnetic field shown to have medical benefit. Another doctor notes that more study is needed and that people should keep an open mind until more information is available.