Opinion » Antidote

Attractive Nuisance

As a New Year's resolution, I am hereby publicly committing to get back in shape. I'd like to use the elliptical machine I own, but I always get a sore back about an hour after every workout.


As a New Year's resolution, I am hereby publicly committing to get back in shape. I'd like to use the elliptical machine I own, but I always get a sore back about an hour after every workout. The husband of the woman with whom I share an office cubicle sells magnetic support belts, and she swears hers really helps. I hesitate to spend that kind of money for some refrigerator magnets glued inside a back brace unless you tell me it's a good idea. So give it up, doc.

—Roberta McC., Boise

A belt like that could be useful—at least around the office. If your co-worker wears hers at work, the thing would be a great place to store paperclips and bent staples. But unless you're Batman, that's about the only purpose for a magnetic belt. Nonetheless, I applaud your plan to get fit for the new year. Regular workouts will definitely be helpful when your cubemate eventually backs into the metal filing cabinet; you'll need all the strength you can muster just to yank her free.

Her husband, I presume, sells more than back belts: magnetized bracelets, wrist supports, shoe insoles, mattress pads—even bottled water—are now sold by both retail chains and through multi-level marketing. A recent journal article estimated sales in the U.S. at $300 million, and about $1 billion worldwide. These huge figures cannot be explained by the dubious effectiveness of the products; they are almost certainly due to the famous athletes endorsing them. Largely from sports populated by affluent amateurs (golf and tennis), paid celebrities give seemingly sincere testimonials but ultimately promote the baseless idea that magnets have miraculous healing power.

Enthusiastic users, often members of a multi-level sales force, describe magnetic products to prospective customers with meaningless words and phrases reminiscent of a Bush press conference. Magnets (similar to, oddly, new Iraqi governments) "remove disharmony," "facilitate congruency" and "redirect energy flow." Perhaps the most interesting rationale for selling magnets, other than for securing children's artwork to refrigerators, is this: Because the earth's electromagnetic field is weakening, magnets are necessary to restore your personal magnetic balance. Ah, that pesky personal magnetic balance; finally an explanation why my favorite Clay Aiken cassette keeps erasing when I hold it, lovingly, close to my heart.

There are, in truth, actual medical uses for magnets. A new procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation sends strong electromagnetic pulses across the brain and may be helpful for depression and Parkinson's disease. Smaller magnetic oscillations are used by orthopedists to stimulate slow-healing fractures and, of course, there is MRI diagnostic imaging. However, visualizing anatomy in cases of injury or disease with the strong magnet of an MRI has not, so far as I know, resulted in spontaneous healing.

Lists of research studies show absolutely no effect of weak magnets on health, while only a relative few indicate need for further study. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an evaluation of 29 different, well-designed studies of magnets used for pain relief. It concluded that the evidence shows no merit for pain conditions but did suggest more study for uses in osteoarthritis.

Naturally, the facts haven't slowed sales. A common claim made by purveyors is that magnets increase circulation and thereby speed healing. That does make logical sense if one knows that blood contains hemoglobin, and hemoglobin contains iron. But experiments show that the four separate iron atoms in each hemoglobin molecule are actually not magnetic at all. It seems that large numbers of iron atoms must be packed tightly together in order for them to become attractive—much like the audience at a Clay Aiken concert. As one critic pointed out, if blood were indeed attracted to magnets, placing one briefly on the skin would leave a little red mark.

This is not to say that your co-worker is being dishonest about her pain relief. She is likely benefiting simply from the support itself, not the magnets inside. The same applies to happy golfers with magnetic carpal tunnel wrist wraps and arch supports (benefits of orthopedic supports are medically well-established). Plus, a person's resolve not to have wasted $85 adds additional encouragement, often resulting in a strong, physically helpful placebo effect.

Other than overpaying, contributing to your office cellmate's dreams of financial freedom is relatively harmless—unless it keeps you from getting a proper diagnosis. In my experience, low back pain following elliptical machine use is quite common; I'd advise a quick checkup and exercise recommendations from your doctor. But if he suggests a magnetic mattress pad, an abrupt run out of his office would be a good first workout.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send Clay's empty bronzer bottles and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).