This is the first of a three part article where Dr Eccles looks at the historical and scientific evidence for the effects of static magnetic fields on human health. There is much reference to their use in pain relief but in Part 3, Dr Eccles discusses an exciting development in non-hormonal menopause symptom relief.
It has been known for some time that the behaviour of certain types of biological materials is influenced by magnetic fields (Reno & Nutini, 1963). Subtle magnetic fields can produce a physiological effect. For example, pico-tesla range electromagnetic fields have been shown to have significant effects on nerve regeneration (Turing, 1952).
Electrical activity exists in the body at all times, eg. the beating heart, which is the biggest electromagnetic field generator in the body (Eyster et al, 1933). Mechanical loading of bones generates electrical currents. The discovery of magnetic material (deposits of magnetite) in the human brain may suggest that we are physiologically designed to respond to magnetic fields (Kirschvink et al, 1992).
It has been postulated that pathological state may result from misalignment of sub-microscopic magnetic fields from their natural state and that applying a magnet allows for a physiological re-orientation of order and coherence in molecules. We now know that wound and hard tissue repair process involves electric currents. Becker & Selden (1985) proposed the existence of an electromagnetic system in the body that controlled tissue healing. When the electrical balance of the body is disturbed by an injury, an injury current is generated, with the resultant shift in the body’s current triggering a set of biological repair systems. As healing progresses, the injury current diminishes to zero.
It has been noted from Space flight that deprivation of the electromagnetic wave between the earth’s surface and the ionosphere leads to abnormal body functioning (Owen, 1986)
The Historical Evidence
The following historical review highlights some of the recorded evidence of the therapeutic use of magnets. I am indebted to the excellent review and treatise on electromagnetic fields published by Dr Roger Machlis (1993).
For more than 2,000 years effects of magnets and low frequency electromagnetic fields on biological processes have been debated. Magnetic therapy was used in Ancient Egypt, then by physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen and in the Middle Ages by Paracelsus. The use of magnets to treat musculo-skeletal disorders such as gout and muscle spasms dates back thousands of years to the Greeks, Persians and Chinese physicians. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was perhaps the first person in recorded history to mention the therapeutic properties of natural magnets in the 3rd century BC. In the 2nd century BC, Galen, the Greek physician and writer, applied natural magnets to different parts of the body. Consequently, lodestone (naturally occurring magnetic iron ore) bracelets, amulets and other devices began to appear. In the 1st century BC Chinese physicians discovered and recorded the effect that changes in the Earth’s magnetic field has on health. By 1,000 AD Persian physicians were documenting the use of magnets to relieve spasm and treat gout. Plato claimed that it was Euripides who first coined the term ‘magnet’ and attributed magnetic force to a kind of mineral soul within the stone (Quinan, 1885).
Peter Peregrinus is credited with writing the first major, post-classical discourse on magnetism in 1289, describing in great detail the use of the magnetic compass. Magnetic cures for gout, arthritis, poisoning and baldness are documented in many medieval works (Mourino, 1992).
Paracelsus (1493-1542) investigated the medicinal properties of lodestones in the treatment of epilepsy, diarrhoea and hemorrhage. Pharmacists in Europe were using powdered lodestone in elixirs for topical application. William Gilbert (1544-1603), a physician to Queen Elizabeth I, wrote in his book De Magnete in1600 (Butterfield J, 1991) hundreds of detailed experiments on electricity and terrestrial magnetism and debunked many quack medicinal uses of the magnet.
By the mid-18th century durable, high-power magnets were available throughout Europe. Czech Jesuit Maximillian Hell published a treatise on magnetism in 1762 and his work inspired interest from a younger, university colleague, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). He was trained in mathematics, medicine and law and his doctoral thesis ‘Dissertatio physicomedice de Planetarum influxu’ in 1766 dealt with the effects of gravitational fields and cycles on human health. He coined the term ‘animal magnetism’ based on his theories that gravitational forces were able to produce a sympathetic magnetic flux capable of profound neuropsychomatic and constitutional effects. He conducted preliminary clinical trials of these theories in 1774 and in 1775 published his first medical treatise entitled ‘On the medicinal uses of the magnet’. His term ‘animal magnetism’ was coined to describe magnetic forces, which he believed could become misaligned, leading to physiological asynchrony, and that restoration of these malaligned forces could restore health. His methods became popular throughout the salons of Europe. In 1784 a controlled study performed by Antoine Lavoisier, Guillotin and Benjamin Franklin concluded that the efficacy of magnetic healing occurred only in the patient’s mind. Mesmer challenged them to allow patients with refractory neuropsychiatric illness to be randomly allocated to either his treatment or the best alternative medical treatment that they could offer, but they refused, affirming that they did not discount the possible beneficial effects of Mesmer’s therapy, but more its basis as a objective biophysical force. While in France Mesmer’s work was labeled as quackery, but he had stimulated enough interest elsewhere to generate clinical research in the field.
Clinical and commercial development
In 1795, a Connecticut physician, Elisha Perkins, developed a therapeutic device based on magnetism and electromedicine. Based on testimonial evidence and satisfied customers, Perkins was awarded a US patent for the device from the Government. His son, Benjamin, acquired a British patent for the device. It was thought by many, and indeed gained a reputation, to be one of the great therapeutic marvels of the turn of the century. Attempts by the medical establishment in Europe and the US to discredit the device were met with charges of physician greed, professional arrogance and deliberate restriction of ‘alternative health care approaches’. By the time of Perkins’ death in 1799, electromagnetic medicine was well established in the treatment of many different diseases. So popular were the devices at this time that the 19th century has been referred to as ‘the Electromagnetic era of medical quackery’.
The work of Christian Oersted in 1820 and Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry firmly launched the concept and application of electro-magnetism (Mourino, 1991). In 1842 Irish doctor William Stokes and American doctor John Bell were obtaining successful results with their primitive, biomagnetic treatments at Dublin’s Meath Hospital.
In 1843 Reverend Jacob Baker postulated in his pamphlet ‘Human Magnetism’ a vital fluid pervading all natural objects, providing forces of electricity and magnetism and serving as a vital link between mind and body (Baker, 1843). He believed that mobilization of this force could be produced by the will or by external magnetic fields and could, when activated, effect cure from many diseases, including epilepsy, asthma and even cancer. In the 1880’s Dr C J Thacher was responsible for the development of ‘magnetic garments’ with which he claimed to be able to cure anything including paralysis. A pamphlet put out by his company explained that the vigour of life in plant, animal and man was almost entirely dependent on the magnetic energy of the sun.
Another doctrine put forward by proponents of magnetic theory at the time was that the iron content of blood made it the primary magnetic conductor of the body and that of the blood’s ability to absorb magnetic power from the atmosphere was compromised by unhealthy living. There was evidence that by the late 19th century the medical establishment was beginning to accept the role of electromagnetism in the treatment of some diseases, although the concept was still controversial.
In 1887, Robert Bartholow’s textbook, Medical Electricity, reported that the magnetic and electric currents induced by placing magnets on the skin resulted in the ‘very extensive subjective impressions of heightened organic activity… these results were so uniform that there seemed to be no doubt of their genuineness’.
Controlled trials performed at the turn of the century produced less convincing results of the efficacy of electromagnetism. This contradictory data made it difficult for the medical establishment to either condone or restrict the practice of magnetic healing. By the time of the Second World War, it would seem that the physiologic effects of electromagnetic fields were no longer catching the attention of the academic medical journals. However, at this time Russian army doctors were using magnets following limb amputation to promote wound healing. In 1959, Kyoichi Nakagawa MD, a leading authority on therapeutic effects of magnetism on the human body, discovered that some symptomatic conditions respond favourably to magnetic therapy when other modalities fail. Barnothy in the 1960s reviewed all the available data leading to his published two-volume work entitled Biological Effects of Magnetic Fields in 1969. Some of the ‘in vitro’ work that he reports on suggests strongly that magnetic fields, at least at a cellular level, have subtle physiologic consequences.
The advent of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in recent years has given the concept of magnetic interaction with the human body more credibility. MRI exposes the body to magnetic fields of the order of 1-2 Tesla (10 to 20,000 gauss).
In conclusion, the historical evidence highlights the debate over the efficacy of magnetism to achieve positive health effects. However, much of this debate seems to focus on the physiologic basis of the effect rather than of investigating the evidence of a real effect.
In the next article, I will focus more on the more recent evidence that has revived the challenges that the field of magnetic medicine makes to current thinking.
Baker J (1843). Human Magnetism: its origin, progress, philosophy and curative qualities. Worcester, MA. Privately published.
Barnothy JM (1964). In Barnothy MF (ed) Biological Effects of Magnetic Fields. NY, Plenium Press, pp 3-24.
Becker RO, Selden G (1985). The Body Electric. Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life. New York, Morrow. Butterfield J (1991). Dr Gilbert’s magnetism. Lancet, 338:1576-9.
Eyster JAE, Maresh F, Krasno MR (1993). The nature of the electrical field around the heart. Am J Physiology, 106(3):574-88.
Kirschvink JL, Kobayashi-Kirscvink A, Woodfors BJ (1992). Magnetite biomineralization in the human brain. Proc US Natl Acad Sci, 89:7683-7.
Macklis RM. (1993) Magnetic healing, quackery, and the debate about the health effects of electromagnetic fields. Annals Intern Med, 118(5):376-83.
Mourino MR (1991). From Thales to Lauterbur, or from the lodestone to MR imaging. Radiology, 180:593-612. Owen D (1986). Introduction to magnet therapy. J Alt Med, May;6-7.
Quinan JR (1885). The use of the magnet in medicine. Maryland Med J, 14:460-5.
Reno VR, Nutini LG. (1963) Effect of magnetic fields on tissue respiration. Nature, 198:203-4.
Turing AM. (1952) The chemical basis of morphogenesis. Philos Trans R Soc London B Biol Sci, 237:37-72.
By Dr Nyjon K Eccles, BSc, MBBS, MRCP, PhD