Magnetic bracelets have long been touted as a way to get relief from arthritis and other painful conditions. Scientists have largely been skeptical and called the bracelets a waste of money (people spent some $5 billion on them in 1999), and studies have shown mixed results and been criticized for their methodologies. So a group of British researchers decided to put these bracelets to the test.
What the researchers wanted to know: Do the commercially available magnetic bracelets help relieve pain from arthritis of the hip and knee?
What they did: Over the space of two years, researchers found 194 people between the ages of 45 and 80 who suffered from medically documented osteoarthritis of the knee and hip. (They excluded people who already used magnetic jewelry in an attempt to beat their pain.) Scientists divided the people into three groups: Some got a bracelet with magnets set in a way to cause a standard-strength magnetic field across the wrist, some got bracelets with very weak magnets, and another group got bracelets with nonmagnetic steel washers. Participants didn't know what kind of bracelet they were getting. Using a standardized pain scoring system, they rated their symptoms both before and after wearing the bracelets. Patients continued their usual pain management treatment during the experiment, so any effects from the magnets would be additional.
What they found: The strong magnets helped. The average pain scores were 1.3 points lower in the group with the standard magnetic bracelets than the dummy bracelets. Results for the weakly magnetic bracelets were about the same as the dummy ones.
What the study means to you: There were few adverse effects, so if you're troubled by arthritis pain and have an extra $60 to $100 (no need to spend more), a magnetic bracelet may be worth a shot. Make sure the field is between 170 and 200 mTesla in strength, since that's the level that produced results in this experiment.
Caveats: It's not entirely clear whether the improvement came from the magnets themselves or the placebo effect. Even though this was a blinded trial, participants might have noticed whether or not they were wearing the magnetized bracelets (for example, if their keys stuck to the bracelet). The study group was also largely white, so the effects in other ethnic groups need to be studied. Further studies are now necessary to see how magnets compare with pain relief drugs and whether the good effects persist beyond 12 weeks.
Find out more: The U.S. government's take on magnets to ease pain, which doesn't incorporate these latest findings.
Read the article: Harlow, T. et al. "Randomised Controlled Trial of Magnetic Bracelets for Relieving Pain in Osteoarthritis of the Hip and Knee." British Medical Journal. Dec. 1825, 2004, Vol. 329, pp. 14501454.
Abstract online: http://bmj.bmjjournals.com