Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Ask Bill: Magnet Therapy

Welcome to another edition of ASK BILL!

Bill has been overwhelmed by the number of requests that he receives from people asking him a variety of questions related to science and scams that circulate on the Internet and elsewhere. To manage his time effectively, Bill has decided to do a weekly fun and educational "Ask Bill" segment.

Every Wednesday, Bill will choose one question from his e-mails and answer another science or hoax question. Get your questions into him ASAP.

For this weeks ASK BILL, Bill didn't have time to do much, as he's been really busy, so instead he will post an old article that he wrote 5 years ago, related to the topic of Magnet Therapy.

Magnet therapy is the use of static magnets for aid in blood circulation. Claims include helping with pain, healing properties, asthma reduction and more.

One of the best known "magnetizers" was Franz Mesmer. He became all the rage in Paris circa 1778. He would sit patients near a vat of "magnetized" water and would then wave magnetized iron rods around the person. Eventually he discovered, with his colourful attire, that he was just as effective simply leaving the magnets behind and waving his hands around them. I assume this is where "mesmerized" came from.

Interesting to note that, eventually the king appointed a royal inquiry into this with some of the top Parisian physicians and also a U.S. representative by the name of Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the patients did benefit from this practice simply because it kept them away from bloodletting and leeching (similar to the rise in homeopathy at the was a better choice than other practices of the time including the use of mercury to cure).

Magnet Therapy proponents claim that the blood is helped to circulate. Often by watching their videos, they show reddening of the skin around the magnets. This is simply false. The iron in blood is not attracted to the magnet at all. This is because the iron in hemoglobin is not ferromagnetic, but in fact, diamagnetic (it's actually weakly repelled).

The magnets used are often similar to that of fridge magnets. Fridge magnets are designed so that the magnetic field drops off very quickly with a minimal distance. How many papers can you put between your fridge and magnet before the field is so weak it won't hold anything up? Go ahead try it. Similar type magnets were put into foot inserts (yes from that famous company). Next time you are at a place that sells them, take the package to the greeting card section. See how many cards it'll hold up. Now consider this: If the field is that small, how will it even penetrate your sock, and then your skin?

An MRI (Medical Resonance Imaging) uses an ultra strong magnetic field. Know what the most common activity in the body it is used for? Studying blood flow. If magnets had any major effects on blood circulation, an MRI would most certainly cause a person to explode.

Recently (1990's) we've seen a rise in the popularity of magnet therapy thanks due in part to celebrity endorsements from golfers and quarterbacks. "Oh sure," we say, "quarterbacks know pain" so we should take their word for it that a certain product works. Anecdotes are not proof though and often exist due to confusion of correlation and causation.

It seems that any study that is supportive (marginally) was small (under 100 people) and unrepeatable thus suggesting some flaw like the Bayler College of Medicine study. All larger studies since that 1997 one have shown no causation.


Demon Haunted World--Carl Sagan

Voodoo Science--Robert Park

*For over 30 years, Bill has been a professional magician and has traveled all across Canada, performing for all ages. Along with his passion for entertaining, Bill is an educator and life-long learner. He continues to study biology, psychology, neuroscience and chemistry.  Bill has also written many articles on science and scams for various blogs, newspapers and other publications.

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