Try magnetic approach to treating, preventing pain

Don’t let treatment mask underlying condition

While most physicians may not be telling patients with minor aches, pains, strains, and sprains to tape a static magnet to the region of pain and call in the morning, many of their patients are doing just that, especially athletic people experiencing sports-related injuries.

For these types of injuries, it is no different from taking a couple of Advil or putting ice on the injury, says Milt Hammerly, MD, director of integrated medicine at Catholic Health Initiative in Denver. "It is very benign, noninvasive, safe therapy," he says. Magnetic therapy also is good for treating chronic pain.

It is important that people know what they are treating when using magnets, because the treatment can mask the symptoms of an underlying condition, such as metastatic prostate cancer of the spine. "Anyone with chronic symptoms needs to have an adequate work-up and diagnosis to know what he or she is treating," he says.

It is thought that magnets help with minor aches and strains by enhancing blood flow because the ionic or charged particles of the blood respond to the magnetic field. The reduction of inflammation is a slightly different process, says Hammerly. It appears that part of the inflammatory process consists of white blood cells being attracted to a charge imbalance in the area of the injury. "By overriding that charge imbalance with the presence of the external magnetic field, it actually decreases the migration of the white cells to the area of injury and thereby decreases the whole inflammatory response," he explains.

With chronic pain, the nervous system seems to be working abnormally, and anything can trigger the nerves — even weather changes. Small nerve fibers are continuously firing and depolarizing in a vicious cycle. "With that kind of pain, an external magnetic field has been shown to block the depolarization and the pain impulse," Hammerly explains.

In practice, he finds that some people have great results from magnet therapy and others have no response at all. "I wish we were sophisticated enough to be able to predict in advance who would respond and who wouldn’t, but we aren’t there yet," says Hammerly. Magnet therapy does work often enough to make it worth a try for patients with chronic pain and sprains, strains, and aches, he says. Hammerly recommends that people order magnets from a company that offers a 60- to 90-day money-back guarantee in case the therapy does not work for them.

Magnets often are designed into products such as belts, wraps, or mattress pads but can be purchased separately and taped onto the area of discomfort. Magnets to be used as part of therapy are designed with strength measured in gauss. A typical strength for magnets is from 400-4,000 gauss. Weaker magnets are not very effective, and stronger magnets can cause problems, says Hammerly.

People who have pacemakers or any electrically driven medical device should not use magnetic therapy. Pregnant women should not use it on the abdomen, because some research suggests that it could cause developmental changes, says Hammerly. Also, it should not be used as a cancer treatment because the cancer is just as likely to be stimulated as it is to be inhibited, he says.

While there are some practitioners who specialize in magnetic therapy, Hammerly doesn’t recommend them. "They don’t seem to be giving any better advice to their patients than what they can get on their own. Some of the advice is misguided and inappropriate," says Hammerly.

Need More Information?

  • Milt Hammerly, MD, Director, Integrated Medicine, Catholic Health Initiative, Denver. Telephone: (303) 778-5818. E-mail: