Health: Americans attracted by magnetic cure for pain

Chuck the aspirin bottle and make way in the bathroom cupboard for magnets. It sounds like quackery, but, as David Usborne finds out, the American medical establishment is beginning to give magnet therapy a closer look.

In a country where one in three adults have tried some kind of alternative medicine, it is no surprise that magnet therapy should have a following. Several leading American sporting stars, after all, have sworn by them for years.

Now, though, comes news from Texas of a first serious medical study into the use of magnets by patients suffering from the pain that often develops many years after polio. The results are something of a surprise.

The study, it is true, was only a small one. After hearing anecdotal evidence of the beneficial effects of magnets, Dr Carlos Vallbona, of the respected Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, recruited 50 patients with post-polio pain to see whether the stories might have some scientific basis.

His test was a double-blind one, where 29 participants had real magnets strapped to the areas of pain for 45 minutes while the remainder were fitted with sham magnets. Neither Dr Vallbona nor the patients knew who had the real thing and who had the duds. On a scale of 0 (least) to 10 (most) of degree of pain, those who received the active magnets reported an average reduction of pain from 9.6 to 4.4. Those with fake magnets reported a decline to only 8.4 from 9.5.

The study, detailed in yesterday's New York Times, is not the final word on the subject. More intelligence, however, should be available soon from the University of Virginia, which has been awarded a federal government grant to study whether magnets actually work.

The interest in magnet therapy has been stirred notably by athletes such as Japan's Hideki Irabu, a star pitcher with the New York Yankees baseball team. He made his debut in a long-sleeve shirt with scores of tiny magnets sewed into the sleeve of his pitching arm. Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino has used magnets to help relieve pain in an injured Achilles heel.

Dr Ann Gill Taylor at the University of Virginia says sceptics should spare a thought for those suffering from pain that traditional medicines have not eased. "These people are so vulnerable and reaching for help. It behoves a centre like this to look at these treatments."