Pulsed magnetic fields

Magnet therapy has a long history in traditional folk medicine. Reliable documentation tells us that Chinese doctors believed in the therapeutic value of magnets at least 2,000 years ago, and probably earlier than that. In sixteenth century Europe, Paracelsus used magnets to treat a variety of ailments. Two centuries later, Mesmer became famous for treating various disorders with magnets.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, scientists in various parts of the world began performing studies on the therapeutic use of magnets. From the 1940s on, magnets became increasingly popular in Japan. Yoshio Manaka, one of the influential Japanese acupuncturists of the twentieth century, used magnets in conjunction with acupuncture. Magnet therapy also became a commonly used technique of self-administered medicine in Japan. For example, a type of plaster containing a small magnet became popular for treating aches and pains, especially among the elderly. Magnetic mattress pads, bracelets, and necklaces also became popular-again, mainly among the elderly. During the 1970s, both magnets and electromagnetic machines became popular among athletes in many countries for treating sports-related injuries.

Types of Magnet Therapy and Their Uses

The term magnet therapy usually refers to the use of static magnets placed directly on the body, generally over regions of pain. Static magnets are either attached to the body by tape or encapsulated in specially designed products such as belts, wraps, or mattress pads. Static magnets are also sometimes known as permanent magnets.

Static magnets come in various strengths. The units of measuring magnet strength are gauss and tesla. One tesla equals 10,000 gauss. A refrigerator magnet, for example, is around 200 gauss. Therapeutic magnets measure anywhere from 200 to 10,000 gauss, but the most commonly used measure 400 to 800 gauss.

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)

Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) is quite distinct from magnet therapy itself. (The term "electromagnetic field" does not, in this case, refer to magnetism in the ordinary sense.) Nonetheless, for historical reasons, it is often classified together with true magnetic therapies. Because of that, we discuss it here.

Bone has a remarkable capacity to heal from injury. In some cases, though, the broken ends do not join, called non-union fractures. PEMF therapy has been used to stimulate bone repair in non-union and other fractures since the 1970s; this is a relatively accepted use and will not be discussed here. More controversially, PEMF has shown promise for osteoarthritis, stress incontinence, and possibly other conditions as well.


Three double-blind, placebo-controlled studies enrolling a total of more than 350 people suggest that pulsed electromagnetic field therapy can improve symptoms of

For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study tested PEMF in 86 people with osteoarthritis of the knee and 81 with osteoarthritis of the cervical spine. Participants received 18 half-hour sessions with either a PEMF machine or a sham device. The treated participants showed significantly greater improvements in disease severity than those given placebo. For both osteoarthritis conditions, benefits lasted for at least 1 month after treatment was stopped.

A more recent double-blind trial evaluated low-power, extremely low-frequency pulsed electromagnetic fields for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis.  A total of 176 people received eight sessions of either sham or real treatment over a period of 2 weeks. The results showed significantly greater pain reduction in the treated group.

Stress Incontinence

Many women experience stress incontinence, the leakage of urine following any action that puts pressure on the bladder. Laughter, physical exercise, and coughing can all trigger this unpleasant occurrence. A recent study suggests that PEMF treatment might be helpful. In this placebo-controlled study, researchers applied high-intensity pulsating magnetic fields to 62 women with stress incontinence.  The intention was to stimulate the nerves that control the pelvic muscles.

The results showed that one session of magnetic stimulation significantly reduced episodes of urinary leakage over the following week, compared to placebo. In the treated group, 74% experienced significant improvement, compared to only 32% in the placebo group. Presumably, the high-intensity magnetic field used in this treatment created electrical currents in the pelvic muscles and nerves. This was confirmed by objective examination of 13 patients, which found that magnetic stimulation was in fact increasing the strength of closure at the exit from the bladder. However, there was one serious flaw in this study: it does not appear to have been double-blind. (For more information on why this is important, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?) Researchers apparently knew which participants were getting real treatment and which were not, and therefore might have unconsciously biased their observations to conform to their expectations. Thus, the promise of electromagnetic therapy for stress incontinence still needs to be validated in properly designed trials.

Multiple Sclerosis

A 2-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 30 people with multiple sclerosis was conducted using a PEMF device  Participants were instructed to tape the device to one of three different acupuncture points on the shoulder, back, or hip. The study found statistically significant improvements in the treatment group, most notably in bladder control, hand function, and muscle spasticity. Benefits were seen in another small study too.

Erectile Dysfunction

In a 3-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 20 men with erectile dysfunction received PEMF therapy or placebo  The magnetic therapy was administered by means of a small box worn near the genital area and kept in place as continuously as possible over the study period; neither participants nor observers knew whether the device was actually activated or not. The results showed that use of PEMF significantly improved sexual function compared to placebo.

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