Magic magnets and metals move muscles more...
Since it’s Halloween, let’s talk about “costume” treatments - stuff you can wear that they say makes you a superhero - stronger, faster, or healthier. No, we’re not talking about capes... but copper bracelets, magnetic bracelets, and knee, wrist, or ankle braces that have magnets or metals inside.
First, the absolutely silly: hologram discs. This newest version of magical energy bands claims to treat everything: weight loss, addiction, pain, low energy, fatigue, poor sports performance, and anxiety. And they can do so without using those old-fashioned metals and magnets. "‘Cause that’s so 2000’s."
Instead, they are based on hologram discs (I still don’t know what that means) that are “embedded with a range of frequencies that interact with your meridians.” In all the science, medical, or mathematical textbooks written to date, there is not one mention of a health-related meridian. Has anyone claiming that they exist ever explained how they found them or provided any proof of their existence?
We can’t even... It’s not really worth diving in to refute claims like these:
“This new bioenergetic therapy can help the human body by frequency balancing based on informational feedback from the client wearing the band.The broadcasting of these frequencies across the meridians of the human body has shown to provide some incredible benefits.”
That previous paragraph was one of an entire page worth of nonsense. It's like they just decided to put every form of voodoo onto one page. The very idea that you could treat addiction, an extremely complex and hard to treat issue, by slapping a band on someone’s wrist is not only completely wrong, but it is also disrespectful to people suffering from addiction.
Snake oil salesmen of yesteryear have nothing on these people.
Moving from the spiritual to the physical plane, we are seeing a resurgence of copper and/or magnetic bracelets and braces. It was actually these bracelets “resurging” on a bar’s TV screen during a commercial while imbibing local flair that spawned this rant. I can be honest...we’re family by now.
This group of “therapeutic devices” makes most people go “hmmm.” It sounds plausible. These therapies make about $300 million annually in the US and over a billion bucks worldwide, so there’s got to be something there, right? There is data too… Albeit a lone copper study from 1976 said they worked! (never mind, there was radio silence from then until 2009, spare a few reviews or comments on the original data).
They’re marketed to help with arthritis, “improve energy”, “decrease athletic recovery time”, and “restore balance.”
The purported mechanism is the same for any of these magnets or metals – they supposedly affect blood flow to the painful area, restore an electromagnetic balance, and/or alkalinize the body.
Upon closer analysis, there really can’t be anything to these claims.
Can Magnets Really Do That?
In short, no. Let’s take blood flow for an example. Magnet experts claim that the iron in blood cells is attracted to the magnetic fields in the braces or bracelets. Unfortunately, on the microscopic (actually, atomic) level that this works the distances are too great.
Most of the time, these magnetic bracelets are of the refrigerator magnet variety. Take your refrigerator magnet and see how many pieces of paper it can hold up before the thickness of the paper is too great. Not too many, right?
Those fridge magnets are dramatically thicker or more powerful than what’s in the brace. Imagine if the magic braces were actually that strong – you could stick your keys to them and never lose them again!
Copper - Not Just For Plumbing…
Just like the magnets, copper bracelets are supposed to alter blood flow or the magnetic fields of your body. Unlike magnets, copper has a supposed “dual” mechanism. The first is by using the magnetic properties of copper. The second is through physical actions - absorbing through the skin and interacting with pain pathways or affecting blood flow.
Again, the distance is just too great for a bracelet to have any pull on blood flow magnetically. Plus, if it could, what would a roll of pennies do to you? What about plumbers and all the copper pipes?
But what if the copper actually absorbed into your skin?
Copper absorption is regulated primarily by the gut. The mechanism to maintain copper levels (copper homeostasis) is extremely “tight” and requirements are low. Your body needs probably around 10mg a day. Any more and you can throw your body off and cause liver and other organ toxicity. So, let’s just wax poetical - err...practical. Let’s assume the copper bracelet is about 50-100 grams of copper on your skin. If we did absorb that copper, two things would be true. First, we’d probably overdose quickly. Secondly, the bracelet would weigh less over time. I just don’t think you’d be around to measure it.
Let’s Talk Turkey About Pain
We know how pain and inflammation work (very extensively). We know how magnets and metals work (very extensively). Why would putting the two together be an enigma?
Are there unknown pain modulating mechanisms? Maybe. But more than likely, those (most likely) rare unknowns wouldn’t be sensitive to magnets or copper.
Are there unknown properties of magnets or metals? Almost definitely not.
The fact of the matter is these braces or bracelets help because the conditions themselves are self-limiting or wax and wane. They’re cyclic, not sensitive to unexplainable phenomena.
Put Your Money On The Table
Testing to determine the effectiveness of any of these magic devices is nearly impossible. It’s very difficult to blind someone to the presence of a magnet, to start. “Oh, the wrap we gave you to test the effectiveness of magnetic braces actually sticks to your refrigerator? I wonder if you got the placebo or not…” Magnet trials have shown mixed results. Most well-done trials are quick to state, “It is uncertain whether this response is due to specific or non-specific (placebo) effects.”
Even so, the braces themselves are often more than enough to help people. And it’s not hard or expensive to make a decent brace. So it’s difficult to isolate benefits of the magnet, metal, or magic crystal from the supportive, already-proven-beneficial brace.
Nonetheless, there is sufficient evidence to say these things probably don’t work, aside from the theoretical view we’ve previously taken. For copper, the singular, weakly done trial from 1976 was it until a recent, stronger, double-blind placebo-controlled trial showed no benefit to arthritis suffers when wearing the bracelets.
What is the real point?
We never really are ranting about the specific “thing”, in this case, magnetic and metal braces or bracelets. What we’re trying to do is to remind and empower our patients to make better medical judgments.
In medicine, just because it looks and sounds like a duck, we can’t assume it is even related to a mallard.
This is what makes healing so daunting. I can compare the features of cars, computers, and even insurance plans (without a duck or gecko). It’s extremely difficult to get that same clarity in the medical world.
Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist, and professor at Yale says it best:
It’s tough to do the right thing in a system that is so broken. An industry can be over $1 billion globally based, essentially, of a single poorly done study 40 years ago. Yet we can't convince many people to get vaccines citing the overwhelming data in MILLIONS of patients. Bad info "sticks" easier than all the data in the world that could refute it.
“The problem is that health outcomes are too complex for anecdotal perceptions to be a reliable guide.Consumer choices are driven by anecdotes and testimonials – which are bad indicators of actual quality (unlike, say, the comfort of a bracelet).Companies have no incentive to do the kind of quality research that could falsify their advertising claims.
In short, for health care claims the free market does not work.You need systematic quality control.This does not have to mean only government regulation – there are also academic and professional mechanisms for quality control.”
Healthcare can only work when we are truly informed. Access to good, unbiased information is one barrier. The biggest, however, is our individual understanding that anecdotes aren’t enough. Medicine and healthcare, whether natural or traditional, requires a level of rigor to be done right. Until we demand it from the machine, we’ll always be exposed - wasting time, money, and wellness on substandard “therapies.”
"Enough of the soapbox. My arthritis is bothering me!"
So, what can we do if we were initially attracted to the idea of a metal or magnet bracelet?
Food first. Speak with one of our dietitians (for free, as always) to lower inflammatory foods. There are some triggers many people don’t think of!
Second, there are supplements that CAN work. High dose fish oil, for one, has proven benefits for arthritis and a myriad of other nutritional issues like cholesterol support.
Finally, braces of course! Good support goes a long way. We have a DME specialist that can help fit you for the support that best suits you, in case you didn’t know!
Have a Happy Halloween and be safe!
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth