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Magnetic bracelets do they work

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The question one hears quite a lot in discussing magnetic therapy from jewellery is how do magnetic bracelets work? The issue was raised a few years ago by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell and her answers are well worth considering. She noted the somewhat broad range of ailments which proponents claim magnets can cure. But then, she more or less put the damper on the whole thing by stating that "the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says magnets have no medicinal value."

Strictly speaking this is not true. The FDA does not and cannot state that magnets lack medicinal value. The most they can state - and what they actually do claim - is that there is no conclusive evidence that such objects have therapeutic or palliative value. The reality is that millions of people wear these bracelets and many of those individuals take a different position to that of the FDA. But the question that won't go away is do the magnetic bracelets really work at all?

This might seem like a step back from the earlier, bolder question about magnetic bracelets - how do they work? The answer most commonly given to the more specific inquiry, is that the magnets affect the iron (hemoglobin) in the red blood cells. But this suggestion has been scoffed at by physicists as well as physicians. The scientists point out that even the stronger magnets in the best bracelets are too weak to do this. Indeed if it were otherwise, then MRI scanners would be dangerous - as would going to the North Pole. Because the magnetic forces involved in these examples are even stronger. The "field" would (presumably) do some terrible things to our blood!

But in practice, it is often the case that medicines are identified as working, without the actual mechanism being understood. Aspirin, for example, was first created in 1853 and first used medically in 1899. Yet it wasn't until 1971, the underlying mechanism of how it works was discovered, by British Pharmacologist John Robert Vane. At the time, he worked for the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons. Moreover, it wasn't until eleven years later that his achievement was recognized and he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with two others.

So maybe it will yet be a while before we understand the mechanism behind magnetic therapy. So if we were to boldly disregard the skeptics and provisionally treat magnetic therapy as having a scientific basis - albeit an unknown one - then the question we would then focus on is "what do magnetic bracelets help with?"

Over the course of human history, different users have offered different answers. But if we adopt a cautious approach regarding claims of curative properties, that still allows us to ask boldly and plainly: Do magnets really help with pain? For if indeed magnetic bracelets ease aches - even if they cannot cure the underlying illness - then they surely have some value in the real world, to ordinary human beings who need them.

And if they work as palliative medicine, then let us not forget that one of the ailments that subjects many people to chronic pain is arthritis. If you doubt this, you need only do some market research into the sales figures for arthritis bracelets.

But do magnetic bracelets work for arthritis? For that matter, should we even limit the question to bracelets. After all a bracelet is simply an item of jewellery worn on the wrist. But arthritis itself can strike at other parts of the body, like the neck or even lower limbs. And alternative therapists (including inquisitive doctors) have tried magnetic therapy targeted at each and every one of these areas. So, perhaps instead we should ask, more generally, do magnets work for arthritis?

Furthermore, as we'e writing about alternative health here, why stop at magnets only? Why not copper? After all, copper is also said by some to have therapeutic properties. Such beliefs were held even in ancient times. And if a belief has been held since time immemorial, then it is surely perfectly legitimate to ask the question "do copper bracelets really work?" It may offend medical purists to raise the issue. But raise it we must. Scientific inquiry is all about asking questions.

We cannot say that the answer is in the affirmative, for we are not medically qualified. But  some people think it does and so we might then well ask why does copper help arthritis? What are the causal factors? Is it something to do with atoms migrating through the skin? We know that harmful chemicals can migrate through the pores of the epidermis. So why not helpful ones?

But how can copper help the body? Is it a chemical reaction or - as the skeptics would argue - a psychological one? Whatever the answer may be, we can be sure that what helps arthritis pain will be a boon to millions of people who suffer from the disease all over the world.

In the meantime, these are nagging questions that won't go away. Attempts by mainstream medicine to shut down the discussion have failed. What we have instead is a lively, vibrant debate, but one with more questions than answers.