Can placing magnets on your skin cure aches, pains, and sprains? So-called "magnetic therapy" is often considered to be a hoax under the guise of "alternative medicine." But now a study by biomedical engineering researchers at the University of Virginia has found that magnets may really provide biological healing. The scientific evidence for the controversial therapy may lead to mainstream use of magnets for athletes, the elderly, and others.
Magnetic Bracelet Used for Magnetic Therapy
Thomas Skalak, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at UV, has been studying the effectiveness of magnetic therapy for several years. Skalak is an expert in microcirculation research--the study of blood flow through tiny blood vessels. With this background, he began investigating whether or not magnets increase blood flow - one of the major claims made by companies that sell magnets.
Until now, many critics of magnetic therapy have believed that the magnetic field generated by medical magnets could only reach a few millimeters into the skin - not enough to affect the blood vessels. People who claimed to have felt better after using magnetic field were thought to be experiencing a placebo effect. Nevertheless, the US magnetic therapy industry sells more than $300 million per year of "pseudoscience" magnets.
Now, Skalak and his team have shown in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Physiology that a magnetic field - created by magnets with a strength of 70 milliTesla, or about 10 times the strength of refrigerator magnets - could cause blood vessels with dilated walls to relax and constrict, which increases blood flow through the vessels.
Increasing blood flow could be used to reduce the swelling of muscles, ligaments, and other soft tissues, Skalak explains. Swelling is a very common side effect of minor and major injuries, such as muscle bruising and joint sprains.
"If an injury doesn't swell, it will heal faster--and the person will experience less pain and better mobility," says Skalak. If used immediately after an injury, the magnets could reduce the swelling of sprains, bumps, and bruises much like ice packs and compression are used - but with more beneficial results.
The researchers' experiment demonstrated the effectiveness of the magnets on rats. They first treated the hind paws of the rats with an inflammatory agent that caused tissue swelling, and then applied magnets to find that the swelling subsided. The team also took quantitative measurements of the rats' blood vessel diameter before and after the magnetic therapy to confirm the results.
Skalak and his team are supported by a five-year, $875,000 grant from the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The researchers plan to continue studying the optimal field strength of the magnets at specific tissue locations - a precision that most commercially available magnets don't currently have.