Biomedical Engineering Study Demonstrates the Healing Value of
News Source: Research News
Jan. 2, 2008 — Magnets have been touted for their healing
properties since ancient Greece. Magnetic therapy is still widely
used today as an alternative method for treating a number of
conditions, from arthritis to depression, but there hasn’t been
scientific proof that magnets can heal.
Lack of regulation and widespread public acceptance have turned
magnetic therapy into a $5 billion world market. Hopeful consumers
buy bracelets, knee braces, shoe inserts, mattresses, and other
products that are embedded with magnets based on anecdotal evidence,
hoping for a non-invasive and drug-free cure to what ails them.
“The FDA regulates specific claims of medical efficacy, but in
general static magnetic fields are viewed as safe,” notes Thomas
Skalak, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at U.Va.
Skalak has been carefully studying magnets for a number of years in
order to develop real scientific evidence about the effectiveness of
Skalak’s lab leads the field in the area of microcirculation
research—the study of blood flow through the body’s tiniest blood
vessels. With a five-year, $875,000 grant from the National
Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine, Skalak and Cassandra Morris, former Ph.D.
student in biomedical engineering, set out to investigate the effect
of magnetic therapy on microcirculation. Initially, they sought to
examine a major claim made by companies that sell magnets: that
magnets increase blood flow.
The researchers first found evidence to support this claim through
research with laboratory rats. In their initial study, magnets of
70 milliTesla (mT) field strength—about 10 times the strength of the
common refrigerator variety—were placed near the rat’s blood
vessels. Quantitative measurements of blood vessel diameter were
taken both before and after exposure to the static magnetic
fields—the force created by the magnets. Morris and Skalak found
that the force had a significant effect: the vessels that had been
dilated constricted, and the constricted vessels dilated, implying
that the magnetic field could induce vessel relaxation in tissues
with constrained blood supply, ultimately increasing blood flow.
Dilation of blood vessels is often a major cause of swelling at
sites of trauma to soft tissues such as muscles or ligaments. The
prior results on vessel constriction led Morris and Skalak to look
closer at whether magnets, by limiting blood flow in such cases,
would also reduce swelling. Their most recent research, published
in the November 2007 issue of the American Journal of Physiology,
yielded affirmative results.
In this study, the hind paws of anesthetized rats were treated with
inflammatory agents in order to simulate tissue injury. Magnetic
therapy was then applied to the paws. The research results indicate
that magnets can significantly reduce swelling if applied
immediately after tissue trauma.
Since muscle bruising and joint sprains are the most common injuries
worldwide, this discovery has significant implications. “If an
injury doesn’t swell, it will heal faster—and the person will
experience less pain and better mobility,” says Skalak. This means
that magnets could be used much the way ice packs and compression
are now used for everyday sprains, bumps, and bruises, but with more
beneficial results. The ready availability and low cost of this
treatment could produce huge gains in worker productivity and
quality of life.
Skalak envisions the magnets being particularly useful to high
school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as school
nurses and retirement communities. He has plans to continue testing
the effectiveness of magnets through clinical trials and testing in
elite athletes. A key to the success of magnetic therapy for tissue
swelling is careful engineering of the proper field strength at the
tissue location, a challenge in which most currently available
commercial magnet systems fall short. The new research should allow
Skalak’s biomedical engineering group to design field strengths that
provide real benefit for specific injuries and parts of the body.
“We now hope to implement a series of steps, including private
investment partners and eventually a major corporate partner, to
realize these very widespread applications that will make a positive
difference for human health,” says Skalak.
— Written by Melissa Maki
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