Feb. 28, 2000 (Big Bear City, Calif.) -- There's nothing like a celebrity endorsement to jump-start a health fad. In 1997, when professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez said he'd banished his foot pains by slipping magnets into his insoles, fans were quick on his heels.
Soon many golfers sported magnets in their shoes, on their forearms, in their gloves and belts, even in their collars and hats. The golfing trend rekindled a fascination with magnets that dates back thousands of years to the lodestones used by ancient healers.
Magnet purveyors haven't waited for proof before cashing in on the trend. Slick catalogs flood the mail and dozens of web sites have sprung up hawking magnetic belts, mattresses, and shoe inserts said to relieve just about every ailment imaginable.
In September 1999, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission took action against two magnet vendors, Magnetic Therapeutic Technologies in Irving, Texas, and Pain Stops Here! in Baiting Hollow, N.Y. The companies were ordered to cease claiming that their magnets could treat a multitude of life-threatening illnesses, including cancer and AIDS.
Despite the hype and the government's action, a few studies raise intriguing, albeit inconclusive, questions about magnets. Take, for example, a study published in the November 1997 issue of Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Investigators at the University of Houston taped half-inch magnets to the sore spots of 29 people with post-polio pain and attached identical but fake magnets to a comparison group of 21 patients. Neither set of patients knew who was getting the real magnets.
All the patients were asked to rate their pain on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most severe. Those wearing the real magnets reported a reduction in pain from a level of 9.6 to 4.4. But the 21 people treated with sham magnets said their pain dropped only from 9.9 to 8.4.
How might magnets produce such an effect? Some proponents suggest that magnets boost circulation, bringing more blood and nutrients to the targeted area. That's the theory advanced by Ted Zablotsky, M.D., President of BioFlex Medical Magnetics, a firm that sells magnets for medical uses.
The lead researcher from the University of Houston study, family physician Carlos Vallbona, M.D., raised a different possibility. "It's possible the magnetic energy affects the pain receptors in the joints or muscles or lowers the sensation of pain in the brain," he said. But the bottom line is that no one understands how magnets could act as medicine. "We do not have a clear explanation for the significant and quick pain relief observed by the patients in our study," Vallbona said.
Many experts remain unconvinced by the research done to date. "Studies done on magnets so far are small and not duplicated," says John Renner, M.D., President of the National Council for Reliable Health Information in Independence, Mo. "So they don't yet add up to scientific evidence. Plus, some studies on magnets have been negative, but nobody ever seems to hear about those."
One such study -- which you're unlikely to find on any magnet maker's web site -- was published in the January 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association. Nineteen patients with heel pain wore insoles containing magnetic inserts. Fifteen others wore identical insoles without the magnets. After four weeks, the two groups reported the same amount of relief.
"I tested magnets on carpal tunnel syndrome but did not get good results," says Michael Weintraub, M.D., a New York Medical College neurologist. "But I did get good results using magnets to help diabetic foot pain." That study, printed in the January 1999 issue of the American Journal of Pain Management, found that diabetics suffered less foot pain while wearing low-intensity magnets in their shoes.
With such conflicting results, it may be a long time before scientists can pry the truth about magnets away from the hype.
Luckily for those attracted to using magnets, studies so far haven't turned up any side effects. Magnet makers do advise that pregnant women not use magnets, as no one knows how the devices might affect a fetus. They also say that magnets should not be placed over areas of the body that contain electrical devices like pacemakers or internal insulin pumps.
But until researchers decide what, if anything, they're really good for, medical magnets may pose their greatest risk to the user's wallet.