Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something as simple and benign as wearing a magnetic bracelet or necklace could ease pain, as from arthritis? Or if magnets could alleviate depression, cure insomnia, boost energy—even fight cancer? Marketers have been pitching magnet jewelry, belts, insoles, blankets and mattress pads for such purported benefits for years. Here’s what you should know.
First, there are two types of magnets. Most common are static (permanent) ones, made of various metals that, once magnetized, stay magnetized. In contrast, electromagnets consist of a coil of wire with a metal core that is magnetized only when an electrical current flows through the wire.
The use of magnets for treating pain dates back centuries. In more recent decades, researchers have put static magnet therapy to the test. Magnets produce electromagnetic fields that are able to penetrate the body. It’s claimed that this alters nervous system functioning, boosts blood flow to tissue and has other possible pain-relieving effects.
But study results have generally been unimpressive. For example, in a pilot study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2010, people with carpal tunnel syndrome who taped a magnet to their wrist at night for six weeks did no better than those who used a sham magnet. And in a 2009 British study, a magnetic wrist strap worn for four weeks was no better than a demagnetized or copper bracelet in managing pain and stiffness in people with osteoarthritis.
A 2007 analysis of nine placebo-controlled studies found no evidence that static magnets relieve pain. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, study results have been mixed and overall do not support the use of magnets for pain relief. Any apparent benefit may due to symptoms simply resolving themselves or to a placebo effect.
Your brain on magnets
Using magnets for depression is more promising. Such therapy involves transcranial magnet stimulation (TMS), in which high-intensity electromagnetic pulses are used to stimulate nerve cells in a region of the brain associated with depression. In 2008 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared a TMS device called NeuroStar for people with major depression who failed to respond to antidepressant medication. Used under medical supervision, this supposedly induces changes in brain activity, including the potential release of mood-relieving neurotransmitters.
Though not all studies have had positive results, a 2009 analysis of 30 trials concluded that TMS was better than a sham for treating depression—with benefits comparable to some antidepressants.
However, the latest study, published in JAMA Psychology in June 2018, found that TMS worked no better than a sham treatment. This double-blind clinical trial involved more than 160 U.S. veterans with major depression who had not responded to antidepressants. Half were randomly assigned to receive TMS treatment, half sham TMS treatment, for up to 30 treatment sessions. Overall, there was a 39 percent remission rate among participants, with no significant difference between the two groups.
TMS is also being studied for other neurological and psychiatric disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and tinnitus, though the research is still in the early stages. There’s preliminary support for the use of TMS for migraine headaches.
Side effects include scalp discomfort and headache, with a rare risk for seizures.
Bottom line: If you have arthritis or other musculoskeletal pain, it’s not likely that static magnets will help other than by a placebo effect. There’s no convincing evidence that they have any other health benefits, either. However, if you suffer from depression and don’t respond well to drug treatment, you might talk to your psychiatrist or psychologist about TMS—but it’s expensive and insurance probably won’t cover it. Magnets can be risky for people with implanted metallic objects, such as cochlear implants, pacemakers and defibrillators.
Originally published in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter in February 2013.