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Expert Opinions

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Are magnets effective for relief of back pain?

S.W. New York, NY
Golfers, computer users, weekend athletes, and others have made magnets a popular remedy for relief of soreness of the joints, wrists, back, and other areas. Many people swear that by taping magnets to affected areas, pain is eased. Most doctors, however, remain skeptical that magnets work. A small but well-controlled study conducted last year showed that magnets may bring some relief for those with diabetic pain and numbness in the feet (American Journal of Pain Management, 1/99). Still, evidence for the effectiveness of magnets remains sketchy at best.

We spoke with Robert R. Holcomb, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He has been studying specialized medical magnets at the University for the past 10 years. His company is Holcomb Healthcare (www.HolcombHealthCare.com). Here's what professor Holcomb had to say.

Q: Can magnets help back pain?

A: (Dr. Holcomb): We've been trying to answer this question definitively for more than a decade, both in the laboratory and in the clinic, where we've treated more than 5,000 patients. Our evidence indicates overwhelmingly that magnets can help relieve back pain. In fact, I've used them successfully on myself. We've run double-blind, placebo-controlled studies for both chronic and acute back pain, and patients using our magnets reported 20% to 30% less pain than those in a control group. Some felt relief even before we got the magnets correctly positioned; effects are usually seen in less than an hour.

Q: How might magnets work against pain? Do they need to be a certain strength?

A: (Dr. Holcomb): Theories abound. Our evidence suggests they block the brain's perception of pain. Our studies have also found that the strength of an individual magnet is less crucial to pain relief than the overall arrangement of the magnets. We use a device with four magnets, which together generate a powerful magnetic field. The device, called a Magna Bloc, is now undergoing FDA testing.

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