Magnets for Happy Feet?

Magnetic Insoles Claim to Help Foot Pain - But the Evidence May Not Support Them

Florsheim is doing it. Dr. Scholls is doing it. Seems like the magnetic insole bandwagon is growing every day. But will magnets in your shoes really relieve tired feet and foot pain?

A Brief History of Medical Magnets

Use of magnets in medicine and wellness dates back to physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1543) who used magnets to draw disease away from the body. Franz Anton Mesmer, who popularized hypnotism, also had a magnetic healing salon.

Both of these practitioners understood that the mind and attitude of the ill person and belief in the treatment led to the most success, in other words, the placebo effect.

Medical magnets were big business in the late 1800's as "the king of the magnetic quacks" Dr. C.J. Thacher had a mail-order catalog packed with magnetic garments to wear over whatever part of your body ailed you.

Multi-Level Marketing Revives Magnets

While magnets fell out of favor in the 20th Century, a big comeback was made as several Japanese firms began producing and popularizing medical magnets again in the 1990's. Some companies such as Nikken spread them through a multilevel marketing scheme. Ferrite and rare-earth magnets can be manufactured in thin disks which can be easily applied to the body and configured in any sort of wraps, pads, or cushions.

With 80 pros on the PGA Tour using magnets, and friends and family selling them as well as respectable companies such as Dr. Scholls and Florsheim advertising magnetic products, magnets are looking, er, attractive...

How Do Medical Magnets Work?

Some magnets are multipolar, with both the north and south poles facing the patient/desired body part, often with manufacturers touting that their circular or checkerboard or triangular pattern is in some way superior. But this also further limits how far the magnetic field reaches.

Any effect inside the body must be limited to a few millimeters, only skin deep.

Possible Causes of Action for Medical Magnets

Magnet marketers prefer to advertise that they work by using testimonials, so as not to make any unsupported claims. The most common causes of action claimed is an increase in blood flow, supposedly attracting the iron atoms in the hemoglobin in blood or the water ions in the blood and tissues. Other claims are that nerve impulses are altered, reduced acidity of the bodily fluids, and increased oxygen in the tissues.

Mythbusting Magnetic Theories

Because of the multipolar design of most magnets and the extremely limited penetration of the tissues even by those of high Gauss ratings, any effect inside the body would be negligible and no more than skin deep. Rather than being attracted to magnetic fields, blood and water are actually weakly repelled by magnets.

Real Relief, But...

Magnets work for many people, but not because of their claimed magnetic effects. The real cause of the cure is that the patient believes something is being done, and this stimulates the body to feel less pain or fatigue.

This placebo effect is seen in medical studies for most diseases, with 10-60% of the people in the control group - those given an inactive "sugar pill" or sham treatment, having a positive response. This is especially true with the relief of pain and fatigue.

People who experience relief from pain using magnets or any other treatment have real pain relief. For that reason, I would not discourage or belittle those who have found their cure in using this treatment, but rather I celebrate their relief, no matter that is is placebo effect rather than magnet effect.

Double Blind Studies Show the Truth

In medical studies done properly, a treatment is given in a double-blind fashion with half of the participants getting the proposed cure and half getting something that looks exactly like it but has no active ingredients - and neither the patients nor the researchers know which group received which.

In most studies, both groups will have a significant number of people who report an improvement in their condition due to the placebo effect. It is only when the group with the proposed cure has significantly more people reporting an improvement than the control group with the inactive ingredients that the proposed treatment is shown to be effective.

Placebo Effect Generates True Testimonials

The placebo effect is a reason why the testimonials used in advertising are easy to find and the people giving the testimonials have truly felt relief from their suffering when using the treatment. It is also why these need to be taken with skepticism towards the advertised product.

Research on Magnets for Foot Pain

A study by the New York College of Podiatric Medicine found that magnetic insoles gave no more relief from heel pain than a non-magnetic insole. The finding was published in the January 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association. It is telling that 60% of those studied had heel pain relief whether they had the magnetic or non-magnetic insole - showing the power of the "placebo effect" on heel pain.

No Relief for Plantar Fasciitis by Magnetic Insoles

A 2002-03 study in Rochester, Minnesota of 101 plantar fasciitis sufferers showed no difference in pain between those using a magnetic insole and those using a placebo non-magnetic insole.

Polls Find No Significant Results with Magnets

  • Consumer Reports polled its readers on the effect of magnetic therapy on foot pain and low back pain. While 40% said it worked for them, that again is the number that might respond to a placebo.
  • A poll taken by the About Guide to Chronic Pain/Back and Neck Injury found that 80% of those using them had no pain relief.

FTC Takes Action Against Magnet Claims

The Federal Trade Commission has taken action against spurious claims. Magnetic Therapeutic Technologies, Inc. agreed to stop representing their magnet products, including magnetic knee supports and magnetic sleep pads, as treating and alleviating a variety of medical problems, including cancer, high blood pressure, HIV, diabetic neuropathy, and Multiple Sclerosis. Napa and Sonoma counties of California have received a judgment against Lipenwald, Inc., and National Magnet Therapy, LLC, for marketing "New Therapeutic Magnets" for pain relief.

    If Magnets Don't Work, What Can You Do for Foot Pain?

    Magnetic insoles have not been proven more effective than regular insoles for relieving foot pain or keeping your feet from getting tired.

    Insoles and Orthotics

    Rather than spending extra money on magnetic products, shop for the insoles or arch supports that give your feet the best relief. There are many varieties including those with foam and gel cushions.

    For feet that are not relieved by over-the-counter insoles, a custom orthotic may be needed. These need to be prescribed by a physician or podiatrist and fitted by an expert. Medical insurance may cover the cost.
    Insoles and Orthotics

    The Right Shoes

    Getting the right shoes can also make a large difference in preventing foot pain and fatigue. You should be fitted for your walking shoes at the best technical athletic shoe store in your area. See the Walking Shoe Guide for in-depth coverage on getting the right shoes and finding the right store to fit you. Many walkers select shoes that are too stiff and too heavy and end up fighting their shoes with each step. See the Shoe Guide for tips on selecting the right shoes, which may be a style of running shoes.

    Plantar Fasciitis

    If you have pain in the bottom of your foot when you first step out of bed in the morning or after being seated for awhile and get up, then you may have plantar fasciitis.

    Sources

    MA Caselli, N Clark, S Lazarus, Z Velez and L Venegas, " Evaluation of magnetic foil and PPT Insoles in the treatment of heel pain" Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, Vol 87, Issue 1 11-16.

    Mark H. Winemiller, MD; Robert G. Billow, DO; Edward R. Laskowski, MD; W. Scott Harmsen, MS. "Effect of Magnetic vs Sham-Magnetic Insoles on Plantar Heel PainA Randomized Controlled Trial" JAMA, September 17, 2003, Vol 290, No. 11

    Pittler MH, Brown EM, Ernst E. "Static magnets for reducing pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials." CMAJ. 2007 Sep 25;177(7):736-42.

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