There is a huge market for selling bracelets that promote health, improve sports performance, cure some ailment or symptoms, or (better yet) all of those things. Think about it – who wouldn’t want a treatment that was as simple and stylish as wearing a pretty bracelet on your wrist? Some people do that just for the stylish part. There’s also a sic-fi, futuristic, Dick Tracy vibe to high-tech bracelets.
The only problem is that pesky question – do they actually work? Marketers of magic bracelets don’t seem to care about that question, however. It’s irrelevant, or at worst an obstacle to making millions.
The concept is also nothing new. People have been using magnets as healing devices from the moment these “magical” stones were discovered. Magnetism was thought to be a kind of living energy in the rocks. It’s possible that Cleopatra wore a magnetic bracelet for its healing properties.
Debunking of magnetic healing devices by the scientific mainstream is as old as the scientific mainstream. In 1600 a physician by the name of William Gilbert wrote De Magnete, in which he systematically tested and proved worthless hundreds of popular magnetic healing devices of the time. There was probably a bracelet or two in there.
Bracelets also involve more than just magnets, which is a bit quaint. Today, through modern quackery, you can get not just magnetic bracelets, but copper bracelets, bracelets with holograms embedded in them, and bracelets with quantum technology that resonates with the natural frequencies of your biofield, naturally enhancing your self-healing and detoxifying your cells.
You can even get a 3-in-1 magnetic copper Jesus bracelet.
Clearly the marketing of such snake-oil devices has evolved a bit (although, not really – the ideas are pretty much the same, only the lingo has really changed). But that pesky question remains – do they work?
From an a-priori plausibility point of view it’s easy to say, probably not. Magnetic fields of such devices often don’t significantly penetrate the skin, and all proposed mechanisms have been shown to be false. Magnetic fields do not attract the iron in hemoglobin improving blood flow (the iron in hemoglobin is non-ferromagnetic). Magnets to not alter nerve function, decrease inflammation, reduce oxygen free radicals or improve oxygenation (whichever way you swing), nor do they have any other significant biological effect at the power level of such devices. And that exhausts the slightly plausible mechanisms, leaving us with the pure magical nonsense claims, like resonating with frequencies and biofields.
You have to have a certain dedication to science and rationalism, however, to be significantly swayed by basic science plausibility arguments. Direct clinical evidence is often more compelling. Unfortunately there is a paucity of such research, despite the multitude of devices and hundreds of millions of dollars made on them.
A 2007 review of studies (9 trials) of static magnetic fields and pain relief found that they were not effective.
Until recently the only study of copper bracelets was in 1976. The study was not rigorous, was preliminary in design, and the abstract reports that some of the subjects who wore the bracelets “appeared to have some therapeutic value.”
A 2009 study by Richmond et al of copper and magnetic bracelets for osteoarthritis found no benefit. The same authors have now conducted another study of copper and magnetic bracelets for rheumatoid arthritis and found – no benefit.
I could find no other studies of copper bracelets, but there is a study looking at a copper gel applied to the skin for osteoarthritis, and this study found – no benefit.
Copper and magnetic bracelets do not appear to work for pain relief in general, or for either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
This is a market, however, that seems to be immune to scientific evidence demonstrating that its products do not work. After all – magnetic devices were debunked four centuries ago, and repeatedly since, to no apparent effect. Evidence to the magic bracelet market is like – well, you can choose your metaphor: water off a duck’s back, blocked by a reality distortion field, unable to penetrate the Teflon coating, or like cutting off the heads of a hydra. (OK, one more for you uber-nerds out there – like a spell thrown at a cheating LARPer.)
Perhaps if there were some way to force companies to do quality, monitored research prior to making health claims for their devices. If only we had some model, or some experience with such a system. But even then, we would require scientifically literate representatives in government who cared more about protecting the public’s health than the profits of corporations, so no point in holding our breath.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.