Magnetic fields have health benefits

Technology may not have all the answers (where are the hover boards of Back to the Future?) but many wondrous inventions have been manifested by modern man. Some directions for new technologies may be questionable but when it comes to medicine, numerous examples of beneficial inventions can be found, from MRI’s to CRISPR cloning techniques. But there are many technologies popular in other parts of the world that are not utilized in the US.

One obvious direction for research is in the treatment of pain, the most common symptom leading to a visit to a healthcare provider. A chief complaint of a musculoskeletal nature makes up a large percentage of those, whether it’s a balky knee or an aching ankle. When asked about technologies for treating pain, most Americans would mention TENS, a common form of electric stim. A healthcare provider might mention therapeutic ultrasound or infrared treatments, and other electrically powered units listed as physical therapies.

The most common result of a typical office visit for medical care in the US is a prescription for medication. This is the primary method of medical intervention in the United States. As to why this is so can be argued, but not its presence. Alternative methods of treatment have not fared well against big pharma, with its billion dollar marketing budget. Their dominance in the marketplace that is modern medicine is impressive.

Various methods of pain relief have been created but never brought to commercial use in this country. A few are gradually playing an increasing role in the treatment of America’s musculoskeletal pain as word spreads of their attributes and uses. One example of this phenomenon is PEMF therapy, short for pulsed electro-magnetic field. This refers to the application of a magnetic field which varies over time, i.e. it pulses.

Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and/or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. As a general concept, humans prefer to avoid and reduce pain. The aforementioned chronic musculoskeletal pain so many of us experience drive many to seek respite from their discomfort with off-the-shelf or prescription medications, with all their inadequacies and complications. But, in general, these methods are temporary and palliative, relieving without curing.

PEMF is neither new nor particularly experimental. The concept was developed in the early 1970’s in Australia, although Russia was active in studying the technology. It was approved by the FDA for the treatment of certain fractures in 1979. The first text on the topic was published in 1982 in Bulgaria. Numerous studies have shown that short-term exposure to a pulsed electromagnetic field influences various processes in the human body, leading to pain relief and healing.

PEMF has an impressive track record in clinical reports and studies. There is sufficient documentation allowing it to be covered by most insurances for the treatment of non-unions, fractures that won’t heal. Historically, surgery for these troublesome injuries has had a less than optimal track record and at tremendous cost. With PEMF therapy, surgery can sometimes be avoided, yet the broken bone healed. And PEMF has no complications or side effects. For decades, in the US, this device has been associated exclusively with the treatment of bone injuries. This is not the case in many other countries, where numerous benefits are touted.

The asymmetric, broad-band pulses produced by PEMF technology are able to affect a number of biologic processes, and without generating heat. One of particular importance is for the overly sensitized nerves that develop when some acutely inflamed structure becomes chronically inflamed, like a sprained ankle which remains painful. In this phenomenon, an acute injury becomes chronic when other tissues, primarily nerves, that were not part of the initial injury, become inflamed. There is increasing evidence that many complex, chronic conditions, such as knee pain, low back syndrome, fibromyalgia, are all manifestations of this process.

Studies of PEMF therapy have demonstrated excellent benefits in reducing pain intensity in low back patients, independent of the specific condition. Individuals utilizing PEMF therapy in this study needed less pharmacologic pain relief (aka drugs). This author uses small, portable PEMF units on a daily basis, allowing a delay, possibly elimination (?) in hip replacement surgery. Various old sports injuries, of some significance, have been kept comfortable and controlled with occasional application.

One of the drawbacks of PEMF therapy is the exposure times, which are long. Exposure of the painful region to PEMF requires hours per day for more obvious effects. One method attempting to circumvent this is with a mat upon which the individual sits or sleeps, a simple way of prolonging treatment times. Another example consists of a series of discs, each containing electromagnets, connected in some fashion. The latest iteration is a small wire ring with a button completing the loop. These new smaller, portable technologies have been a boon, allowing convenient all-day application.

There is much about magnetic fields we do not understand. In fact, we have no idea how magnetism works. Although the mysteries of the power of magnetism are intriguing, there is abundant research revealing the power of a pulsed electromagnetic field to reduce pain and speed healing. PEMF provides a non-invasive, safe, and easy method to treat the pain of many musculoskeletal diseases.

The drug companies may not want you to know about PEMF therapy, but the time has come for a change. We need to learn more about the potential for this established technology to improve the health and fitness of Americans. If we can reduce the amount of pain medication use, and increase activity levels through minimizing orthopedic pain, all through the use of non-invasive technologies, we’ll enhance our well-being. PEMF therapy is here.

Dr. Conway McLean, DABFAS, FAPWHc, has offices in L’Anse and Marquette. He is a physician who specializes in treating lower leg, ankle and foot problems.


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