Magnetic Madness

Recently my Dad was diagnosed as having arthritis in his knees. Now I should say right from the beginning that I am skeptical even of this, given that the diagnosis apparently just involved my Dad telling the GP that his knees still hurt after a fall he had a few weeks ago, the GP looking at my Dad’s trousers for a few seconds (he never so much as asked him to roll up his trouser leg) and then noting the fact that my Dad is over 60 and so concluding that the pain is therefore the result of arthritic knees. But I am not going to focus on this aspect of the story as it is what happened next that really got my skeptical juices flowing.


The doctor prescribed my Dad some pain killers that my Mum promptly set off to collect. Whilst doing so she, being the caring sort she is, asked if there was anything else she could get that would help with my Dad’s discomfort. The helpful pharmacist recommended something that she stated she had used many times herself and my Mum, being the caring but rather un-skeptical sort she is, promptly purchased a pack of 12 Relief-Xtra Magnetic Plasters. Later when she informed me of this fact she admitted to not being exactly surprised by my reaction.


The Relief-Xtra Magnetic Plasters are basically small ceramic magnets mounted on circular plasters which are said to produce a magnetic field with a strength of 800 GAUSS. They are, of course, just one of many products that you can buy that fall under the heading of Magnetic Therapy, a pseudoscientific alternative medical “treatment” with, dare I say it, not a jot of evidence supporting its efficacy.


Now I am no expert on this sort of thing and will admit that 800 GAUSS sounded pretty impressive to me, and clearly the manufactures agreed as it is one for the main selling points on the box. Having no idea how strong this was I did a simple experiment. I placed one of the magnetic plasters on a metal surface and turned it upside-down. It stuck. Next I placed a single piece of paper between the magnet and the metal surface and again turned it upside-down. This time it did not stick. I repeated this a few times and the best result I got was the magnet hanging on for a few seconds as I rotated the surface past the 90 degree mark. So clearly 800 GAUSS is not the strongest of magnetic fields. For comparison a similar sized fridge magnet selected at random from my Mum’s vast collection effectively held ten times as many bits of paper, at which point I stopped counting. So the magnets used in these plasters are at least ten times weaker than those on your fridge and barely strong enough to make it through a single sheet of paper. Kind of makes you wonder how they are meant to make it through flesh and muscle to ease the pain in my Dad’s aching knees?


But of course even if the magnetic fields produced by these plasters were strong enough to make to where they were needed the evidence that they would actually have an effect once they got there is pretty much non-existent. Research shows that magnetic fields of equivalent and higher strength have no effect upon blood flow, contrary to one of the main claims put forward by proponents of magnetic therapy. Further more additional research on similar magnetic therapy devices shows that beyond “non-specific placebo effects” magnets are ineffective in the management of pain caused by arthritis, the specific issue for which they were recommended to my Mother. Robert Park, in his 2000 book Voodoo Science, summed it up perfectly when he said “Not only are magnetic fields of no value in healing, you might characterize these as “homeopathic” magnetic fields.” They don’t do anything and they are too weak to do so even if they did.


But believe it or not my frustration here is not aimed at the people who produce these completely ineffective products, as least not this time, nor at my Mum for buying them and certainly not at my Dad for walking around with two of them stuck to his knee. No my frustration is aimed squarely at Boots, the UKs most recognised and trusted pharmacy chain, for stocking, promoting and, in this case, directly recommending a product that is simply not up to the purpose for which it was sold. In fact, and this is unsurprising if you know anything about advertising laws, even the people who make this product do not claim it actually does anything. In fact the only claims made on the box are that magnetic therapy is recognised by modern science, has been used for thousands of years and that you should notice some undefined benefits after 24 hours. It makes no claim to treat pain of any sort, let alone arthritic pain. As with implied support from GPs when a trusted company like Boots sells a product like this they are, whether they intend to or not, conveying a message to their customers that the product works, that it will do what it is being sold to do and that it, like Boots themselves, can be trusted. This is simply not the case when it comes to magnetic therapy, or almost any alternative health care products for that matter. Less than two years ago Paul Bennett, a spokesman for Boots, stood up before a committee of MPs and told them that they sell homeopathic products basically because people buy them and not because they actually work. I strongly suspect something similar is going on here.


Further Reading:


Magnet Therapy: A Skeptical View

Magnet therapy doesn’t work

Magnet Therapy: Positive or Negative?

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