An Attractive Subject: Bipolar Magnet Therapy

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AUTHOR OF DRINKING OCCASIONS: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES ON ALCOHOL AND CULTURE (BRUNNER/ MAZELL, 2000) AND INTERNATIONAL HANDBOOK ON ALCOHOL AND CULTURE (GREENWOOD, 1995).

In a small, preliminary randomized controlled trial published in the March 8, 2000, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers tested a particular bipolar permanent magnet as a possible remedy for chronic low back pain. A permanent magnet is a magnet that can retain its magnetic force for an indefinite number of years without an external magnetic-field source. As the authors note, permanent-magnet products are popular for treating various musculoskeletal conditions, but scientific evidence that such treatment works is scarce.

Edward A. Collacott, M.D., and three associates (including an affiliate of the Bio-Electro-Magnetics Institute, in Reno, Nevada) studied what they term "bipolar magnet therapy," which they describe as a popular type of permanent magnet therapy. According to the researchers, bipolar magnet therapy is characterized by the application of a variable magnetic device in which both the north pole (negative) and the south pole (positive) are positioned toward the skin. They compared the effects of a bipolar permanent magnet and the effects of a "placebo" specifically, a device identical to the magnet except for the absence of detected magnetism--on 20 adults who had had stable low back pain for at least six months and whose diagnostic-test data suggested spinal-disc degeneration. Each of these subjects wore a magnetic device for six hours a day on three weekdays and, in another week, wore the "placebo" instead according to the same schedule. They had been directed not to alter their regular medication usage. The investigators found no statistically significant differences between the effect of magnet treatment and that of the placebo treatment on the degree of low back pain.

The lack of such a finding, of course, does not invalidate the assertion that this purported form of therapy is more useful against pain than is a placebo. The authors note that their study "was not intended to prove or disprove the effectiveness of magnet therapy in general." They further state:

Additional studies using different magnets (unipolar and bipolar), treatment times, and patient populations are needed.

A stronger magnet may be necessary to penetrate to the source of chronic low back pain. Expanding the treatment time in an ambulatory setting would require manipulation of the devices by the subjects, which would increase the chances of [the subjects'] detecting whether the magnet/sham was magnetized.

Meanwhile, consumers interested in whatever the expression "magnet therapy" (which has more than 10 synonyms) denotes should keep in mind that: (a) magnet therapy is not a reasonable replacement for any scientifically established mode of therapy; (b) some styles of magnet therapy are based on improbable theories and are applied according to such theories; and (c) the words "biomagnetic" (or "Bio-Magnetic"), "electromagnetic," and "magnetic" are parts of the names of unscientific health-related methods to which magnetism has little or no relation.

JACK RASO, M.S., R.D., IS THE AUTHOR OF THREE BOOKS ON ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE.

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By Jack Raso

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