Do magnets reduce pain?

Static magnets represent a multi-billion-dollar industry. They are marketed with claims of effectiveness for reducing pain of various origins. One survey suggested that about 28% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia use magnets or copper bracelets for pain relief.

Magnets produce energy in the form of magnetic fields. Two main types of magnets exist: static or permanent magnets, in which the magnetic field is generated by the spin of electrons within the material itself, and electromagnets, in which a magnetic field is generated when an electric current is applied. Most magnets that are marketed to consumers for health purposes are static magnets of various strengths, typically between 30 and 500 mT. Magnets have been incorporated into arm and leg wraps, mattress pads, necklaces, shoe inserts and bracelets.

However, evidence for the scientific principles or biological mechanisms to support such claims is limited.

Systematic literature searches were conducted from inception to March 2007 for the following data sources: MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database), CINAHL, Scopus, the Cochrane Library and the UK National Research Register. All randomized clinical trials of static magnets for treating pain from any cause were considered. Trials were included only if they involved a placebo control or a weak magnet as the control, with pain as an outcome measure. The mean change in pain, as measured on a 100-mm visual analogue scale, was defined as the primary outcome and was used to assess the difference between static magnets and placebo.

Results: Twenty-nine potentially relevant trials were identified. Nine randomized placebo-controlled trials assessing pain with a visual analogue scale were included in the main meta-analysis; analysis of these trials suggested no significant difference in pain reduction (weighted mean difference [on a 100-mm visual analogue scale] 2.1 mm, 95% confidence interval –1.8 to 5.9 mm, p = 0.29). This result was corroborated by sensitivity analyses excluding trials of acute effects and conditions other than musculoskeletal conditions. Analysis of trials that assessed pain with different scales suggested significant heterogeneity among the trials, which means that pooling these data is unreliable.

Interpretation: The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment. For osteoarthritis, the evidence is insufficient to exclude a clinically important benefit, which creates an opportunity for further investigation.