The painful truth: Magnetic bracelets, the placebo effect & analgesia

Despite the widespread availability of evidence-based medicine in the western world, ‘alternative medicines’ are still commonly used. Such medicines are usually inspired by  pre-scientific medical practices; those which have been passed down through generations. However many established medical treatments also arise from traditional medical practices. For example the use of aspirin as an analgesic (pain killer) has its roots in the use of tree bark for similar purposes throughout history. The difference between established medicines like aspirin, and alternative medicines such as homeopathy, is that the former have been found to be effective when exposed to rigorous scientific trials.

Can magnetic bracelets help relieve joint pain in conditions like Arthritis?
Can magnetic bracelets help relieve joint pain in conditions like Arthritis?

A form of alternative medicine that has recently been subjected to scientific scrutiny is the use of magnetic bracelets as a method of analgesia. It effective, such therapies would provide cheap and easy-to-implement treatments for chronic pain such as that experienced in arthritis. Unfortunately there is little evidence of such treatments being effective. A meta-analysis of randomised clinical trials looking at the use of magnet therapy to relieve pain found that there was no statistically significant benefit to wearing magnetic bracelets (1). However it can be argued that existing clinical trials may have been hampered by the difficulty in finding a suitable control condition.

The placebo effect

The ‘placebo effect’ is a broad term used to capture the influence that knowledge concerning an experimental manipulation might have on outcome measures. Consider a situation where you are trying to assess the effectiveness of a drug. To do this you might give the drug to a group of patients and compare their subsequent symptomatology to a control group of patients who do not get the drug. However even if the drug group show an improvement in symptoms compared to the control group, you cannot be certain whether this improvement is due to the chemical effects of the drug. This is because the psychological effects of knowing you are receiving a treatment may produce a beneficial effect on reported symptoms which would be absent from the control group. The solution to this problem is to give the control group an intervention that resembles the experimental treatment (i.e. a sugar pill instead of the actual drug). This ensures that both groups are exposed to the same treatment procedure, and therefore should experience the same psychological effects. Indeed this control treatment is often referred to as a ‘placebo’ because it is designed to control the placebo effect. The drug must exhibit an effect over and above the placebo treatment in order to be considered beneficial.

A requirement for any study wishing to control for the placebo effect is that the participants must be ‘blind’ (i.e. unaware) as to which intervention (treatment or placebo) they are getting. If the participant is aware that they are getting an ineffective placebo treatment, the positive psychological benefits of expecting an improvement in symptoms is likely to disappear, and thus the placebo won’t genuinely control for the psychological effects of receiving an intervention.

A placebo for magnetic bracelets

The obvious placebo for a magnetic bracelet is an otherwise identical non-magnetic bracelet. However the problem with using non-magnetic bracelets as a control is that it is easy for the participant to identify which intervention they are getting, as it is easy to distinguish magnetic or non-magnetic materials. The can be illustrated by considering a clinical trial which appeared to show that magnetic bracelets produce a significant pain relief effect (2). In this study participants wore either a standard magnetic bracelet, a much weaker magnetic bracelet or a non-magnetic (steel) bracelet. The standard magnetic bracelet was only found to reduce pain when compared to the non-magnetic bracelet. However the researchers also found evidence that participants wearing the non-magnetic bracelet became aware that it was non-magnetic, and therefore could infer that they were participating in a control condition. This suggests that the difference between conditions might be due to a placebo effect, as the participants weren’t blind to the experimental manipulation.

This failure of blinding was not present for the other control condition (weak magnetic bracelet) presumably because these bracelets were somewhat magnetic. As no statistically significant difference was found between the standard and weak magnetic bracelets it could therefore be concluded that the magnetic bracelets have no analgesic effect. However it could also be argued that if magnetism does reduce pain, the weaker bracelet may have provided a small beneficial effect which might have served to ‘cancel out’ the effect of the standard magnetic bracelet. The study could therefore be considered inconclusive as neither of the control conditions were capable of isolating the effect of magnetism.

More recent research

Recent clinical trials conducted by researchers at York University has tried to solve the issue of finding a suitable control condition for magnetic bracelets. Stewart Richmond and colleagues (3) included a condition where participants wore copper bracelets, in addition to the three conditions used in previous research, while researching the effect of such bracelets on the symptoms of Osteoarthritis . As copper is non-magnetic it can act as a control in testing the hypothesis that magnetic metals relieve pain. However as copper is also an traditional treatment for pain, it does not have the drawback of the non-metallic bracelet regarding the expectation of success. The participant is likely to have the same expectation of a copper bracelet working as they would for a magnetic bracelet.

The study found that there was no significant difference between any of the bracelets on most of the measures of pain, stiffness and physical function. However the standard magnetic bracelet did perform better than the various controls on one sub-scale of one of the 3 measures of pain taken. However this isolated positive effect was considered likely to be spurious because of the number of comparisons relating to changes in pain that were performed during the study (see 4). The same group has recently published an almost identical study relating to the pain reported by individuals suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis rather than Osteoarthritis (5). Using measures of pain, physical function and inflammation they again found no significant differences in effect between the four different bracelet types.

No effect?

The existing research literature seems to suggest that magnetic bracelets have no analgesic effect over and above a placebo effect. The use of a copper bracelet overcomes some of the problems of finding a suitable control condition to compare magnetic bracelets against. One argument against using copper bracelets as a control is that as they themselves are sometimes considered an ‘alternative’ treatment for pain, they may also have an analgesic effect. Such an effect could potentially cancel out any analgesic effect of the magnetic bracelets when statistical comparisons are performed. However copper bracelets did not perform any better than the non-magnetic steel bracelets in either study (3, 5) despite the potential additional placebo effect that might apply during the copper bracelets condition. Indeed on many of the measures of pain the copper bracelet actually performed worse than the non-magnetic bracelet. The copper bracelet can therefore be considered a reasonable placebo to use in research testing the analgesic effect of magnetic bracelets.

Despite the negative results of clinical trials, it may be wise not to entirely rule out a potential analgesic effects of magnetic bracelets. Across all three studies (2, 3, 5) the measures of pain were generally lowest in the standard magnetic bracelet group. Indeed significant effects were found in two of the studies (2, 3) although these were confounded by the aforementioned problems concerning control conditions and multiple comparisons. Nevertheless it could be argued that, given the existing data, magnetic bracelets may have a small positive effect, but that this effect is not large or consistent enough to produce a statistically significant difference in clinical trials. This theory could be tested by conducting trials with far more patients (and thus greater statistical power) or by using a number of different bracelets of differing magnetic strengths to see if any reported analgesic effect increases with the strength of the magnetic field. Until such research is performed it is best to assume that magnetic bracelets do not have any clinical relevant analgesic effect.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

References

(1) Pittler MH, Brown EM, Ernst E. (2007) Static magnets for reducing pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. CMAJ 2007;177(7):736—42.

(2) Harlow T, Greaves C, White A, Brown L, Hart A, Ernst E. (2004) Randomised controlled trial of magnetic bracelets for relieving pain in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. BMJ 329(7480):1450—4.

(3) Richmond SJ, Brown SR, Campion PD, Porter AJL, Klaber Moffett JA, et al. (2009) Therapeutic effects of magnetic and copper bracelets in osteoarthritis: a randomised placebo-controlled crossover trial. Complement Ther Med 17(5–6): 249–56.

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_multiple_comparisons

(5) Richmond SJ, Gunadasa S, Bland M, MacPherson H (2013) Copper Bracelets and Magnetic Wrist Straps for Rheumatoid Arthritis – Analgesic and Anti-Inflammatory Effects: A Randomised Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Crossover Trial. PLoS ONE 8(9):

Rob Hoskin

Received a PhD from the Neuroscience Department of Sheffield University. Views expressed in blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of the Science Brainwaves organisation. https://twitter.com/Hoskin_R

53 thoughts to “The painful truth: Magnetic bracelets, the placebo effect & analgesia”

  1. I see. As of now, there haven’t been proof that magnetic bracelets are effective for reducing pain but I think it depends on the person wearing the magnetic bracelet. As pain tolerance is different in different individuals, so too is the effect of magnetic bracelets to their pain sensations.

  2. I am amazed that these studies yield such poor results for pain relief. Clearly really weak magnets are being used otherwise the participant would pick up their fork during a meal and know they are wearing a magnet.

  3. for me my copper bracelet does work I wear it on my right wrist every minute of the day and believe me i can move my fingers a lot easier than without it . I still have some pain but not as excruciating as if I did not have it on. Try it and have some patience,

    1. Skin contact with, and general contact with copper for extended periods of time has been proven to be quite unhealthy – part of the reason why you dont see copper kitchenware anymore.

      1. Actually, copper kitchenware is quite popular. And I respect the studies being done, although in my case they have no meaning. Since wearing a magnetic bracelet relieves the carpal tunnel I experienced for over 30 years, I’m going to keep on wearing it!

  4. If the placebo effect works, who cares. I spend about 12 hours a day at a computer. I could not even move my fingers, do not even mention the wrist, because of the pain, and since I have a magnetic bracelet, the pain is gone, for years, I only get an occasional wrist pain, but then after a burning feeling, it stops. My colleague had the same problem, I got her one and she is happy now. I know those, so called tests, I have read one in detail, they have used very low power magnetic bracelets for a short period of time and even though they worked for some, they said, that it was placebo, because they did not work for majority. Mine has bout 80000 gauss. My pain was gone after a week, it took about 3 days, till it kicked in, it did not miraculous stop immediately.

    1. Shhhh, you might upset this person’s Bias….
      “Despite the widespread availability of evidence-based medicine in the western world, ‘alternative medicines’ are still commonly used. Such medicines are usually inspired by pre-scientific medical practices; those which have been passed down through generations.”

      I love it, our beliefs are so strong, but we don’t want to believe in them, otherwise we might be FOOLS.

      “pre-scientific”?? Science is just empirical analysis, or observational analysis….but only SCIENCE can observe, gotcha….no one was doing that up until SCIENCE came along.

      Could it be that you falsely believe in SCIENCE. That Science is never wrong?
      Do you realize that there are aspects of existence that almighty Science can not explain, has not had time/money to truly study, or cannot touch with a ten-foot pole? There are Science Taboos….Science might have missed something, just maybe.

      1. OK wise guy, explain what “Aspects of existence that ‘almighty’ Science can not explain”
        This is nothing less than the same feeble argument that religious crackpots use in an attempt to show their ‘god creature’ exists … … somewhere !

      2. Well said, Huineng. I have three scientists in my immediate family and respect the studies and search for truth that scientists pursue. The problem comes when they begin to think they are the only ones with the answers. I was skeptical of alternative therapies for years until one at a time a different one fixed another problem or made me feel better with something which “modern science” could not explain or help me with. Even my brothers admit that anyone who puts all their trust in science to the exclusion of other possibilities is limiting their knowledge. I am grateful for those who are not narrow-minded and who are willing to develop non-traditional methods for the times when traditional ones don’t work, or are accompanied by too many undesirable side-effects (including death!).

    2. ? In a situation such as this, patients who experience placebo effect are lucky people. For the time being at least, they wouldn’t have to resort to Rxs. No fear of addiction, masking other medical conditions or side effects of drugs. Good report on the studies though!

    1. Yes it is safe to wear them. There is no evidence that they have any effect on the brain, and therefore they shouldn’t affect the symptoms of epilepsy, or any other neurological condition.

  5. I am 70 years old and have, over the past year or so, started experiencing some discomfort at the base of both thumbs, possibly exacerbated by passing the motorcycle test two years ago!!
    I purchased a magnetic wristband five weeks ago and have been wearing it constantly since then, but have not experienced any noticeable improvement yet. I would like to know if it’s possible to measure the magnetic force easily, to determine its potential efficacy?

    1. You would probably be better off wearing leather gloves on the bike in summer combined with heated handlebar grips in winter.
      Could it be that like me, you squeeze the handlebars too tightly (as though you are holding on for dear life ?)
      When my hands are cold as well, this causes my fingers to lock-up (cramp) – extremely dangerous if emergency braking is required !! This is when I stop to warm my hands up and rub/bend all the joints to get them flexible again.
      If magnetism helps, then surely we receive all we need from earth’s natural magnetic field ?

  6. I used to have a lot of problems as a musician that after a while playing fast that the Joints in my fingers would start to stiffen.( I Play the Bagpipes) For 6 weeks now I have been wearing a copper magnetic bracelet and the problem has gone. It does work even though it has not been proven. All I can say is, “prove that it doesn’t work”.

        1. Play on, Stuart! I like bagpipes that I got a small set to teach myself. It is harder than it looks! I am glad the bracelet is working for you.

      1. I was born & lived in Sri Lanka till my 59th year till I moved to Europe. I was subjected to Rehumatic
        Arthritis and when ever there is a change of weather, viz rain, my body begins to ache. I researched
        magnetism and other earth properties and commenced wearing a pure copper bracelet and to my
        relief my pains vanished within a month or so. I was convinced that I followed it up, due to the cold climate here, with a bracelet having 17 small magnets – believe it or not – for 19 long years. Never experienced pain.
        of an sort.

        1. could you please tell me what material is you bracelet is made for and as much information about it as possible you can share as well please ? i’m looking for one, but i don’t know how to choose the right one for my self

      2. We, that have found that our pain is less or GONE care less if anyone believes it or not. WE don’t have to prove anything. We are no longer suffering as much. As for me, my pain (numbness, tingling, pain in right leg for months) is GONE after 2 weeks wearing a copper bracelet with 6 magnets on my left wrist. So don’t try it if you would rather scoff about something you probably haven’t even tried.

    1. Imogene, yes, I saw that program too where they fed dogs baked beans and the extra expulsion/propulsion made them accelerate twice as fast.

  7. Agreed with the above poster.. if the placebo effect works, then who cares otherwise? The Placebo Effect has been known to provide tremendous amounts of value through numerous scientific studies, there’s no one size fits all.

  8. Hello Rob,
    I have purchased a magnetic bracelet, but I’m also on blood thinners for life. Some websites indicate not to wear the bracelet with this condition (apparently because magnetic fields reduces blood viscosity). Is there’s any truth to this? I have a bad back and would be willing to take a chance, if possible.

    1. The magnetic fields in bracelets is usually quite low, so I wouldn’t have thought it would be a problem. People on anticoagulants are able to undergo MRI scans, even though MR scanners have a magnetic field strength at least 30 times greater than the strong magnetic bracelets. If in doubt I would find out the strength of the bracelet (measured in Gauss) and check with your GP, or with whoever prescribed the anticoagulants.

  9. I have been wearing a magnetic bracelet for about a year. It has had no noticeable effect on my pain levels, neither has it lived up to the other multiple claims made for it. Maybe I am just a freak.

    1. AJ – no, you are not a freak … you are just one of the thousands of people desperate to ease their pain and discovered they wasted their money on a ridiculously overpriced piece of scrap copper pipe which most people could get for nothing out of a builders skip.

  10. I am a Registered Nurse, and I would not trust a word the scientist and proprietors of Western Medicine tote in regards to the benefits (or no benefits in many cases), of homeopathy and alternative medical therapies. Imagine how much money drug companies and all those supporting high cost medical therapies would lose if half of the world found relief in something as simple and cheap as wearing a magnetic bracelet. A lot. The question is, who are the scientists doing these studies really working for, and how are they conducting their studies? Although looked down upon in the scientific community, flubbing test results and conclusions to favor one side instead of the other, has and is still being practiced. Anyone from scientist to a beggar on the street can be bought if the price is right. And believe me, with how much these drug companies are making in profits, Im sure they can make the price very right for whatever scientist or doctor that comes along.

    1. Hopefully, all governments have their own independent scientists to test the claims of commercial scientists.
      In the UK, the National Health Service often refuse to buy/provide hugely expensive items, but the public do not know if this is because there are no proven benefits or if it is because the government are cash strapped – I suspect the latter.

    2. What you say is common sense, Ashley, yet so many do not seem to understand it. I am heartened when medical professionals are in medicine to help others and not to make the pharmaceutical companies richer. I don’t know if Neil is a health professional, but I do wonder why so many people scoff at something because it doesn’t hold up to their narrow definition of truth. They applaud everyone who received no relief from magnets and scoff at those of us who did find relief. I wonder what they would say to those who get no headache relieve from an aspirin? I am grateful for the relief I found after more than 30 years of suffering. And for those still in pain, I pray they will find relief soon.

  11. I have had wrist pain for many years. I started wearing a fashionable magnetic bracelet and the results were amazing and welcomed. One day my wrist was hurting in a way I had not experienced for some time and I look down and for some reason I didn’t have my bracelet on.

  12. When you take two 1/4″ neo magnets and attract to both sides of ear lobe, something definitely happens. Magnets can work doing I don’t know what but they work in the right application, just have to experiment . Don’t debunk it yet.

  13. I can’t speak for humans but this is my opinion…. I am going to have to disagree.
    I use magnets extensively on my 3 horses. I have 1 horse who is a competition horse, almost 20 years old (has competed in high speed events for 15 years), has horrible front feet and hock xrays. He wears magnetic boots for a few days, then I take them off for 1-2 days, then I put them on again (a rotation). He clearly moves better after wearing them for a period of time. His front feet do not hurt him and his trot and canter is even and light. When he hasn’t worn them for a few days, his front pasterns hold fluid and he is stiff footed and sore. Horses don’t lie and don’t know about placebos or band-aids. I don’t give him any meds ever and my vet says keep doing what I am doing… which s rotating him every few days with the magnetic boots.
    I have another horse that I ride in a magnetic saddle pad. I can tell the difference in his movement when I ride him in it. His back warms up more quickly and he isn’t sore at all after working. I have ridden, trained and shown for 25 years and since I have been using magnets on my horses I can clearly see a difference.

    1. yes, i agree…animals don’t have the capacity to lie.THEY HAVE INSTINCT! that’s why they are subject for experiments and cruel test. what matter is learning what nature can do to us to ease the pain of every person or animals alike in order to have a better life. Glory be always to GOD the creator of all creations….and that includes magnets.

  14. I damaged my shoulder 8 weeks ago and have had little range if movement in my shoulder/arm with a great deal of pain, a friend lent me her bracelet and within hours the pain subsided and my range of movement increased. I took the bracelet off for a couple of hours and within 20 minutes the pain came back and was unbearable. Not sure if its mind over matter, the placebo effect or if magnetic bracelets works, i’ve noticed a difference. however, my concern is whilst the pain is subsided I feel like I can use my arm/shoulder more, but my shoulder/arm is still damaged, so does the bracelet help heal an injury too or just reduce pain.

  15. I bought a 79cent hemotite braclet from china on ebay,it works,my thumbs felt like they were being pulled off,this 79 cent braclet works. So im looking for something a little more my style and will spend the money.Cheaper and safer than Naproxine

  16. Magnetic bracelets have been popular in the past but these days Germanium bracelets and necklaces have been in demand in Asia and some European countries. They are known for several benefits such as balancing body’s Ions and removing excess positive ions and strengthens one’s immune system.

  17. One also has to take into account that the Medical profession and Pharmacies have no desire to tell the truth if they’re going to lose money and different procedures to help people who claim these bracelets work??? so we have to do great deal of research on own to really find the answers we desire. I for one believe these metals and magnets can help some people.

  18. I suffer from carpel tunnel both wrists and had pain as well as spasms. Being a registered nurse I am a believer in medicines not alternative medicines and was taking Pregabalin 75mg twice a day. As a joke I used my wife’s magnetic copper bracelets on both wrists, now I have no pain no spasms and best of all I no longer take the medication. I was amazed, any alternative is worth a try. I also suffer from restless leg syndrome, of course taking pramipexol which alleviates the symptoms, so now I am trialing magnetic therapy on both ankles

  19. Painful truth- Your article is desinformation!
    Definition of disinformation. : false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

  20. “Do magnets hold the secret power of healing?”

    Author Stewart Fowler

    New of the World 9 January 2000

    Re: ex copper Gordon Law

    Healed and even his own doctor now wears a magnetic band!

    If it works for you then use it. If not find an alternative. At least it is safe and has no long list of side affects as does conventional medicine and that does not always work either. How often is the course of something treated? Nearly always the symptoms are addressed and the source not addressed! You have a choice!

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