Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, April 08, 2005

Magnetic Therapy


Magnetic therapy. There are the underlays - “We just slip it onto the bed and there we have it, basically. You're receiving the benefits every single night.” The spot treatments - “To isolate the particular painful area, whether it's a knee, wrist, elbow, ankle or the back supports.” The faithful – “You just feel so much better the pain goes.” And the knockers – “And that's what concerns me is that people are not being told the truth.”

For years there's been a hard sell on magnets to treat pain from migraines, arthritis, even heart conditions and cancer. Craig Trinder says he brought the therapy to Australia. A former motorbike racer, he says he broke 30 bones and his back and spent 15 years on drugs before trying magnets in the US. “Within three days I noticed the difference in pain relief. Then in about 15 days, totally gone - it was just incredible.” Craig says he's sold 300,000 products since starting Gold Coast-based company BioMagnetic. And he happily presents customers who say the therapy works. “I had carpal tunnel and that kept me awake at night, prevented me from using my hands, and within two weeks I was sleeping right through the night. And within about six weeks I was able to get up out of bed and move around like I was a 16-year-old again.”

But sceptics don't buy a word of it. Anecdotal statements are not evidence. Loretta Marron calls herself the 'Jelly Bean Lady'. She's on a campaign to prove many alternative therapies simply don't work. “It's mind over matter. Many mothers with small children who have bumps and bruises, you give them a jelly bean and they are instantly cured, and that's just the placebo effect.” And the placebo effect is what Loretta believes is at play when people find magnetic therapy working. She says many consumers get no benefit but you don't hear of them. “The number of people that I know that have bought some of these magnetic products, they have put them in their cupboards, they have put them on their verandas.”

Why's Loretta so passionate? Well, she had breast cancer, prompting her to investigate treatments for chronic illnesses. She has a maths and physics degree so she looks for evidence, which she says is severely lacking when it comes to magnets. “The people I represent are cancer patients and seniors and they really don't have the money to be buying placebo products.”

So where does all this leave the people in the middle - consumers? Sales people on one side, sceptics on the other - can be tough making an informed decision. Well, science is trying to provide conclusive answers. “Well, there's obviously a lot of investment of money in it and people do seem to suggest that it helps them so we need to find out whether it does and how it does that.” In a Griffith University study, strong flux magnets are being placed directly on the skin of people with tennis elbow pain. “The indications are that perhaps there is an effect, perhaps the effect is not a nerve-based response, perhaps there's something else happening. And that's what we have to go on and test.”

So far only a handful of patients have been studied. And researchers admit measuring pain levels scientifically is proving tough. “Pretty frustrating because I'm not sure at this time that we have the technology to actually measure what effects are actually occurring.” As they persevere, the Australian Consumers' Association says it's found no conclusive scientific evidence to support magnets, but nothing either to say they're harmful, except maybe to the hip pocket. “These underlays sell for $299 for a queen bed.”

Craig started out offering money-back guarantees, but doesn't now. “I've got case studies on it. I think I'm beyond it.” The Consumers' Association advises people trying magnetic therapy to look for products with money-back guarantees. And the Jelly Bean Lady? Well, she has her own suggestion. “I think if you want to try magnetic therapy at home, just grab a fridge magnet and put it on the spot.”