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Magnetic therapy for pain relief

1 CommentMonday, 9 November 2015

The debate over whether magnet therapy works has been hard to resolve because the two “sides” speak in different terms. A classic example of this is the heavily biased Wikipedia article about magnetic therapy, which claims that such therapy is “pseudoscientific” and refers to claims of therapeutic benefit – or even pain relief – as “unfounded.

Now bear in mind that Wikipedia is meant to be the people's encyclopedia, so one supposes that there must be some proponents and supporters of magnetic therapy. How did they react to this one-sidedness?

One of the good things about Wikipedia is that one can check the history of an article to see not only what was added and when, but also what was removed. And a search of that history is revealing. For example, it was pointed out a few months ago, in an addition to the Wikipedia entry, that one of the articles cited as evidence that magnetic therapy doesn't work, in fact contains the sentence: “For osteoarthritis, the evidence is insufficient to exclude a clinically important benefit, which creates an opportunity for further investigation.” (Emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this attempt to give balance to the Wikipedia article was unceremoniously rebuffed. The qualifying sentence was removed from the Wikipedia entry by the person who controls the entry – even though the added sentence was only quoting from the same article that the main author of the Wikipedia entry had already cited! This too was pointed out, but the gatekeeper remained unmoved. There followed an amicable exchange in the discussion page in which the gatekeeper sought to bolster their case by citing a 2012 study on magnetic therapy in osteoarthritis.

However, if one looks carefully at the phraseology of the Wikipedia entry, it states that the articles cited found “insufficient evidence to conclude that magnet therapy is effective for pain relief.” (Emphasis added) And one of the reasons that the source articles cited for rejecting even the most stringent double-blind studies that supported the case for magnetic therapy was “difficulty with allocation concealment.” In layman's terms: the test subjects could themselves test to see whether they have a magnet or a placebo by holding it to an iron object or surface.

Now it is certainly true that the test subjects could do this. But how many actually do or would? Do the subjects of clinical trials normally try to find out if they are taking a placebo or a real drug/medicine? Has anyone in fact researched this subject. After all, unless the patient takes the pill in the presence of the tester (without switching it) there is nothing to stop him or her taking it to a lab for further analysis. But do the subjects of clinical trials really go to such lengths to thwart the results of trials in which they are taking part?

One assumes that they would have no motive to do so. It is not as if either they or anyone else stands to benefit from such behaviour. And yet the sceptics – or rather the cynics – would have us believe that people who have volunteered to take part in a clinical trial would rather go out of their way to sabotage the trial or undermine its results than simply cooperate and work with the trial to achieve its objectives. This is a fairly outlandish conclusion to draw – and surely an absurd misinterpretation of human nature.

But sometimes the scepticism gets downright desperate in its attempts to undermine the favourable evidence - if not downright silly. Another cited article suggests that: “Perhaps subjects with magnetic bracelets subconsciously detected a tiny drag when the bracelets were near ferromagnetic surfaces (which are ubiquitous in modern life), and this distracted or otherwise influenced the perceived pain.”

This is even more outlandish. It implies that the subject, in a double-blind study, initially presumed that they did not have a real magnet, subconsciously discovered that they did and then subconsciously felt better because of that discovery! And this is considered more scientific than straightforward acceptance of the trial data at face value?

And if one puts aside such outlandish conclusions, then surely it is reasonable to infer that the reason that so many studies have shown that magnetic therapy works for pain relief is for one very simple and obvious reason? Because it does!