May 2009
"Know Your ABCs"
March 2009
"Carb Control"

June 2008
"Best Brain Boosts After 55"

February 2001
"Baby Steps"

November/December 1999
"Sick of Getting Sick?"

August 1999
"Natural Remedies for Little Aches and Pains"

Spring 1999
"Doctors' Orders"

February 1999
"Head-to-Toe Herbal Health"

October 1998
"Sexual Healing"

July/August 1988
"A Baby Boomer's Guide to Menopause"

general health clips — page 2

go to general health — page 1

August 1999

Natural Remedies
for Little Aches
and Pains

According to a now-infamous study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 40 percent of Americans have tried alternative medicine. The conclusion so far: Many natural cures are effective, although sometimes even the experts aren't sure why. How do you know which ones to try? "I have hosted a radio show on holistic medicine for 14 years, " says Bruce Hedendal, DC, Ph.D., a holistic practitioner and clinical nutritionist in Boca Raton, Florida, "and I can't tell you that there is a lot of bad information out there."

To help, we've pulled together eleven of the safest, most reliable home remedies for some minor aches and pains. As always, you should talk with your doctor about serious conditions or possible interactions with other treatments, and avoid taking any remedy if you are pregnant. But if you're dealing with one of these common complaints, why not give natural remedies a try?

Arnica for bumps and bruises
So you bumped into the picnic table or overdid it on the softball field? The kind of trauma that causes achy muscles, and perhaps an ugly bruise, is exactly where of the herb Arnica montana shines. When you apply it externally, arnica can help reduce swelling and inflammation in both acute and overuse injuries, says Hedendal, who also happens to be a champion pentathlon.

He recommends applying arnica cream, ointment or oil to sore muscles or bruises several times a day (don't use arnica on cuts or broken skin, as it can irritate). The herb seems to break down fibrin, the tough matrix of blood clots, and help flush them away, says Christopher Hobbs, an herbalist in Santa Cruz, Calif., and author of Handbook for Herbal Healing (Botanical Press, 1990) and Herbal Remedies for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1998).

Calendula for mouth sores
Canker and cold sores, sore gums or even burns in and around your mouth can make you miserable—but another natural healer, calendula, may help. Known to gardeners as the marigold, Calendula officinalis has been used for centuries to heal a variety of skin lesions, including sores in the mouth and throat. In animal and lab studies, calendula has demonstrated anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties.

The best way to use calendula is to grow your own marigolds, says Hobbs, and "harvest the flowers as you need them." Chew on a small bud if and hold it in your mouth next to the store for 30 to 60 minutes. If you don't have a garden, make a calendula gargle by mixing two teaspoons of prepared calendula tincture (available a health-food stores) with a half-liter of water.

Oils from the evening primrose flower can restore skin's youthful texture

Evening primrose oil for dry skin
If your skin seems to have suffered lately, it may not be the sun—your diet could be to blame. Cutting back on dietary fats can result in dry skin, rough skin, or even eczema. Nutritionists point to the absence of one type of omega-6 fatty acid, gamma linoleic acid (GLA), as the culprit in many skin problems. "We know that one of the symptoms of a GLA deficiency is chronically dry or rough skin, so we think that supplementing can help," says Hedendal.

The remedy, evening primrose oil, derived from the wild flower with the same common name (Oenothera biennis) is rich in GLA. Studies using the oil to treat skin conditions like eczema have shown that it can help clear flare-ups and may reduce itching. Hedendal suggests taking two to four capsules (about 250 to 500 mg) of evening primrose oil daily. You can start looking for improvements within a month. No side effects have been documented.

Tea tree oil for cuts and scrapes
If you can get past the medicinal scent, you'll love what this stuff can do for minor cuts and abrasions. A traditional cure from Australia, tea tree oil is used to treat everything from dandruff to athlete's foot. The pale yellow liquid is derived from an Australian shrub, Melaleuca alternifolia, a member of the eucalyptus family. Research has proven that it is also an effective antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-fungal agent.

To use it, you can apply the undiluted oil straight to an injury. If you have sensitive skin, the full-strength product may cause irritation. For that reason, creams, salves and other over-the-counter preparations made with less-concentrated doses are recommended. Or you can dilute the oil yourself in an equal amount of sweet almond oil, Hobbs suggests. "It really works," he says.

Cooled tea bags for sunburn
That tender, tight-skin feeling you get from a sunburn is a bad enough. But often, as a response to the damage, the body sends extra blood to the site, which makes it hurt even more. Applying a cold compress will help divert some of the blood. And if the compress contains tea, you're getting a few extra benefits.

"Tea is very astringent, " says Margi Flint, an instructor of herbal medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston. "It helps the burn feel less tender." Try green tea, which contains polyphenols, antioxidants that seem to actually reduce the burn's damage to your skin and speed the healing time.

To treat a sunburn, steep several teabags in boiling water; remove the bags to allow them to cool (or put them into the refrigerator), then apply to your skin. If the area to be treated is large, dip a few cloths in the tea, cool and apply. Repeat as needed.

Aloe for burns
The gel from inside the leaves of the aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) plant is one of the best burn remedies around. It is proven to speed healing, although scientists are still on clear as to why. It also may work as a pain reliever, an anti-inflammatory and an anti-itch agent. And it may even fight infection.

"Aloe vera works for all kinds of minor skin irritations, and also keeps the skin soft so burns and cuts keel more comfortably," Hedendal says. Aloe is an ingredient in a variety of skin preparations, from gels and lotions to creams and salves. But you'll get the best results with fresh gel from your own plant, says Hobbs. Just split the leaf in half and squeeze the clear, gelatinous material onto your skin. Used topically, aloe has no known side effects, although you should reserve it for superficial burns and abrasions and leave deep wounds to a physician's care.

Feverfew for migraines
Recent research has proved what herbalists have been saying for generations: The small white flowers known as Tanacetum parthenium can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches, and may ease the nausea and vomiting that sometimes accompany them. Studies do not yet support using the remedy to treat tension headaches, however. And unfortunately, feverfew doesn't seem to help with headaches already in progress; it's a preventive, not a cure.

"Clinical trials and my clinical experience show that feverfew works very well for some people," says Hobbs. It takes from two to five months to take full effect, but the headaches should start easing after six weeks and get progressively better after that." To prevent migraines, take 800 mg of a feverfew preparation twice daily. Look for capsules that are marked "standardized " and contain 0.2 percent, or 250 mcg, of parthenolide, the chemical that has been credited with feverfew's anti-migraine action. Note that a small number of people get mouth sores from this herb; if you're one of them, you shouldn't use it.

Pineapple for indigestion
Before you head to the ballpark for hot dogs, peanuts and beer, trying munching on some pineapple; it might save you a dose of antacids later. The tropical fruit contains bromelain, a naturally occurring enzyme that, when taken before meals, seems to help digestion by aiding the body in breaking down food. Its action is generally less dramatic than pharmaceutical products, Hedendal notes, but it can help if you tend to feel bloated or sluggish after a big meal. Look for bromelain-containing tablets or capsules in the health-food store, and take 250 to 500 mg three times a day, before or during meals (follow label instructions for specific doses).

Lemon balm for insomnia
Tossing and turning? Before you reach for an over-the-counter sleeping pill, consider taking the gentle herbal lemon balm, also known as Melissa officinalis. A mild sedative, this ancient remedy is great for treating the insomnia brought on by anxiety, says Adriene Fugh-Berman, MD, chair of the National Women's Network and author of Alternative Medicine: What Works (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1997). To use it, look for extracts or dried teas and follow the directions on the label. There don't seem to be any side effects, although people with thyroid problems should talk with a doctor before using lemon balm, as it inhibits certain thyroid hormones.

Stinging nettle for respiratory allergies
Stinging nettle, also known as Urtica dioica, is the bane of gardeners and hikers because it can create an extremely unpleasant rash with a mere brush of its branches. But in capsule form, nettle is an effective remedy against hay fever and other nasal allergies. In a recent clinical trial, half of the study participants taking nettle preparations said it was as good or better at relieving their sneezing and itching than the medications they had taken in the past. Like most herbs, nettle's effects can be subtle at first; Hobbs suggests trying an over-the-counter nettle remedy for least three weeks (follow the label for dosing information).

Marianne Frieri, MD, Ph.D., director of allergy and immunology training at Nassau County Medical Center, in East Meadow, New York, cautions that nettle acts as a diuretic, so it should be used carefully to avoid dehydration. Nettle also can cause mild intestinal gas. If side effects are troublesome, stop taking the remedy.

Black haw for menstrual woes
Native Americans used the herbs black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) to treat menstrual cramps. And although scientific evidence of their efficacy is sketchy, herbalists agree that both seem to work as antispasmodics. They also seem to be safe, although pregnant women are advised to avoid using them. Flint recommends black haw tea, as does Fugh-Berman. To make it, simmer in a covered pot a tablespoon of dried black haw roots and one-and-a-half cups of water. Sip small amounts throughout the day. If you prefer to take prepared remedies, look for liquid extracts, capsules or tablets, and follow the manufacturer's dosage instructions.

Hobbs suggests using either herb a few days before your period starts, and continuing for a week to 10 days. For an extra cramp-fighting boost, add a teaspoon of the herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which acts as a sedative, to your tea. But skip the valerian if you're driving, as it can cause drowsiness. And one more note of caution: If you're allergic to aspirin, avoid black haw and cramp bark remedies. They contain its salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin.


Spring 1999
Walking's Annual Diet and Fitness Guide

Doctors' Orders

Taking care of yourself isn't a luxury —it's your highest priority. The nation's top women's health experts tell you how to put your health first

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As women, we're all juggling lot of commitments: families, careers, households, friends. And maybe, if there's time, our own health. But putting your health on the back burner will only backfire in the long run. Skipping meals and medical exams, getting too little sleep and too much caffeine will eventually catch up with you, making you more prone to minor discomforts as well as major diseases.

"Many women have a real problem with taking care of their own health because they're so busy making themselves indispensable to everyone else in their lives," says women's health authority Marianne Legato, MD, director of the Partnership for Women's Health at Columbia University and author of The Female Heart: The Truth About Women and Heart Disease (Simon and Schuster, 1992) and What Women Need to Know (Simon and Schuster, 1997). "We tend to define ourselves by how we meet other people's needs. And that's a health hazard."

At any age, making your own nutrition, fitness, and well-being a priority will make a big difference in your life, says Phyllis E. Greenberger, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Women's Healthcare Research in Washington, DC Consider weight training, prescribed for any woman over 30 as a way to protect bones and overall health. "In every study, women who start weight training at any age get stronger muscles, better balance, more vitality," she says. Yet so few of us make time to do it.

Why not put yourself — your health, happiness, fitness, and peace of mind— at the top of the priority pile? Here are 18 tips from the experts on how to do just that, plus some firsthand accounts of how the experts on health keep themselves healthy.

Get more sleep.
"Most of us simply don't get enough," says Adrian Fugh-Berman, MD, chairwoman of the National Women's Health Network, an independent science-based advocacy group in Washington DC, and author of Alternative Medicine: What Works (Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1997). "We think it's some kind of badge of honor to be able to get by with very little sleep. And this isn't a culture that's very tolerant of midday naps." To make up for lost zzz's, she suggests sneaking in a nap when you can, and making it part of your daily to-do list to get the rest you need. You wouldn't skimp on breathing, so don't skimp on sleep. Both are critical to your health.

Challenge your doctor.
If you've been having chronic problems, such as fatigue or depression, talk with your doctor about all of your options, suggests Susan Lark, MD, author of nine books on women's health, including The Anxiety and Stress Self-Help Book (Celestial Arts, 1996). Don't think that because you are still able to function, your problem isn't important, or the your doctor's solution is your only option. For example, Lark says, many women with depression and low energy levels either do nothing about it or accept a prescription for antidepressants, no questions asked. But your depression might be caused by a thyroid condition that could be detected through a blood test and corrected without Prozac. In other cases, mild depression can be alleviated with exercise and diet. "Ask questions, and don't be afraid to talk about complementary treatments," she says.

Rebalance your body.
"Most women who exercise regularly could use help in six areas, three in front and three in back, " says Carol L. Otis, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, former chairwoman of the American College of Sports Medicine's Strategic Health Initiative for Women, and chief physician for the professional women's tennis tour. Being unbalanced can lead to injury — plus nagging problems like stiffness and poor sleep. Pick up a good book on stretching, or try these moves:

For abdominals, do crunches. For your quadriceps, do seated, straight-leg lifts. And for your lower legs, do toe taps. These will help prevent shin splints as well as other strains.

To loosen up the complementary muscles in the back of your body and to stretch your lower back, hamstrings, and calves, try sitting on the floor and doing straight-leg toe touches (round your back to stretch the lower spine, lift your chin to stretch the hamstrings). Also try the classic runner's stretch: Lean against a wall with one leg extended behind you; do one set with the back knee locked, which will work the superficial muscle in the calf, and one set with the knee bent slightly, to stretch the muscles deeper in the calf.

Learn about yourself.
There's been a virtual explosion in recent years in the amount and quality of information available on women's health, says Lark. Go to the library, a bookstore, the Internet, or your local clinic to find reference materials, classes, and other resources. The healthcare crunch has created a real scheduling nightmare for many doctors, who simply don't have the time to talk to patients anymore. So become your own advocate. Learn about how your body works, and study up on any special health concerns you have. That way, you'll be ahead of the game when you finally get your 15 minutes to chat with the doctor.

Have sex.
"It's important," says Fugh-Berman. "Trust me." Rewarding, regular sexual activity is critical for your physiological and emotional well-being. Sex is a physical release and emotional outlet that can reduce the negative effects of stress on your health.

Face your demons.
If you have a problem that you can't seem to solve, you've got to get help, says Legato. Talk to doctor, a counselor, or a trusted friend who could refer you to a professional. "Continually trying to cope with a problem you haven't been able to solve is not a good strategy," she says. And tolerating pain will undermine any other health-promoting actions you take. "Pain that goes on and on, with no end and no solution, will affect your cardiovascular health and the functioning of your immune system," she says. "It's truly sickening."

Do it for the health of it.
Exercising—or eating right or doing anything else that's healthy — is much more beneficial if you do it for the bigger benefits, not the smaller ones, says Otis. "If you work out for health, you'll probably achieve a healthy weight automatically," she says. "But if you workout to stay thin, you probably won't be making yourself healthy."

Get a massage.
Bodywork may help reduce anxiety and stress and relax tired muscles, says Fugh-Berman. And massage doesn't have to be expensive. "Lots of cities have massage schools that offer student massages for as little as $25," she says. Check the yellow pages.

Get a dog.
Pets are proven stress-busters, injecting humor and spontaneity into your daily routines. And they also make great exercise companions, says Otis. When your dog needs to go out, you have no excuse for skipping your own walk.

Give yourself permission...
...To skip a workout, change your routine, try something new. "Allow yourself the space to stop something if it doesn't feel good," says Christiane Northrup, MD, a frequent lecturer on women's health issues and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam, 1998). "Give yourself time to feel what you're feeling." Then act out that feeling: cut an unpleasant workout short and take a long bath. Or sign up for new routine, like you'll go or boxing class. "Most people push themselves to do something that feels bad because it's supposed to be good for them," Northrup says. "But if you move your body for the simple joy of moving, you'll never get bored or discouraged."

Prepare to suffer.
Making sacrifices in the name of good health is never completely painless, says Greenberger. Replacing bad habits with good ones — and keeping up the new habits when things get tough (as in, you're traveling and can't find anything but fast food) takes some grit. Just remind yourself that all discomfort is fleeting, says Greenberger, who faces the health-conscious traveler's woes quite frequently. "I tell myself, 'You just survived four hours of heavy turbulence over the North Atlantic, strapped into the middle seat of a five-seat row, right next to a screaming 2-year-old. You certainly can do without that doughnut.'"

Take a vacation.
Give yourself a well-deserved break, and schedule that annual ski trip or week at the beach. But don't restrict yourself to once-a-year breaks — build in at least 20 minutes of quality downtime every day, says Otis. Health-wrecking stress has less chance of doing its damage if you break its hold once a day instead of once a year.

Take stock, medically.
Assess your individual health risks to determine which changes, if any, you should make in your healthcare strategy, says Joan McGowan, Ph.D., chief of the musculoskeletal diseases branch at the National Institutes of Health. For example, women approaching menopause should determine if they're at greater-than-average risk for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and breast cancer, she says, and educate themselves if they are.

Take stock, mentally.
"Every season, sit down alone and think about whether you're happy or not, and whether you would make the same decisions you've made if given the chance to do it all over again," says Legato. "It's important to examine your life this way. Most of our lives are eaten up with millions of things, so many that we often don't have time for the things we really love." So give yourself a quarterly check up — and then make some adjustments so that you're spending your energy where it counts.

"Most of us breathe using just the tops of our lungs," says Northrup. This can actually increase stress. Instead, she says, do deep breaths, focusing on bringing air into the lower part of your lungs. This will stimulate circulation in your internal organs and activate the part of your nervous system involved with rest and repair—not fight and flight.

Make tests fun.
Nobody likes mammograms or Pap smears. And no one wants to focus on the scary statistics in order to make herself keep those appointments, says McGowan. So make them a present to yourself. "Schedule exams on your birthday, then take the rest of the day off and go to a spa." (Northrup suggests a women look at these annual task like an oil change for the car: routine maintenance that provides peace of mind.)

Take your vitamins.
Northrup recommends a daily multivitamin, plus calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants like CoEnzyme Q10 and proanthocyanidins (found in pine bark and grape seed extract). Calcium is especially critical for women approaching menopause.

Don't smoke.
You probably don't—but if you do, it's time to start thinking of it as a one-way ticket to the hospital. "Smoking is the single worst health choice you can make," says Legato.

What the Wise Women Are Doing
Our take-care-of-yourself experts — women who spend their lives safeguarding the health of other women — get mammograms and cholesterol screenings, don't smoke and eat plenty of veggies. But what else do they do to stay healthy, happy, and strong? We ask them to share their secrets.
Christiane Northrup "Exercise-wise, I change what I'm doing regularly: Novelty keeps us young. I lift weights at least three times a week, plus I do your basic aerobics stuff, 20 to 30 minutes in the hotel gym. When I'm home, I take Pilates class. It's wonderful and it's really hard. I learned the mat workout so I could do it anywhere. When I want a treat, I make it count: a piece of perfect Belgian chocolate, or a grand desert and a very good restaurant, shared with a few friends. I drink almost no coffee; I can't tolerate the caffeine. I love brown rice, greens, and tofu, and recently I've added more protein to my diet, mostly through fish like salmon. And I take vitamin and mineral supplements every day."
Joan McGowan "My motto is diversity. I go to three or four exercise classes a week, things like boxing and step aerobics, plus I do strength training. Whatever I'm doing, I try to add something that works a different muscle group. I also take the stairs instead of the elevator and walk as much as I possibly can, because even though I exercise an hour a day I still need more activity as a part of my daily life — it's missing for everyone who sits at a computer or in meetings all day. You have to be careful as you get older that you're not just episodically active."
Carol L. Otis "I walk, run, play tennis, and kayak. To keep myself motivated, I exercise with a buddy and keep updating my commitments to myself — to do something for so long, meet a particular goal, etc. I try to exercise in the morning, because that's the time of day when I'm least likely to be interrupted. I can always set the alarm to go off earlier, but I can't always guarantee that I'll get out of work on time or make it to the gym at lunch. I also reward myself with a long soak in the tub or even some new exercise clothes."



March 1999

Boost Your Pain-Fighting Power With Magnets

Pro football players use them. So do top golfers. But can magnets ease your sore back or arthritic knees?

They're everywhere: in health food stores; in the back of golf and tennis magazines; in celebrity endorsements; and, oddly, in places such as the arts and crafts show I attended recently in New Hampshire — right next to the maple syrup candies, quilts, and American-flag-covered mailboxes. I saw a mysterious-looking bandages, shoe inserts, and blankets, claiming to relieve pain in arthritis sufferers, aging athletes, even horses. Magnets certainly have come out of the fringes and into the mainstream.

But do they work? Prevention looked into the promises heard the testimonials, read the studies, and talked to the experts. The verdict? The jury's still out. Some people swear by them; others get no pain relief at all. Could magnets ease your minor aches and pains? Let's take a look at the facts.

Therapy or theory?
The theory that magnets can heal is nothing new. In ancient times, mineral-rich lodestones were thought to have therapeutic powers. And in the 18th century, Frenchman Franz Anton Mesmer wrote himself in to the history books by "mesmerizing" people — and curing them — using magnets. Today, electronic MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is used in most hospitals for taking detailed images of the inner workings of the body. And mail-order companies have been offering magnets to cure everything from headaches to osteoporosis for years.
But in recent months, magnets hit the big time, following a small study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. For the first time, even the most conservative of medical observers had to admit that magnets actually might have something to offer.

The Baylor study, which was published in the November 1997 issue of The Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, tested the effects of small so-called static (or immobile, nonelectrified) magnets on 50 people with postpolio pain, a unique cluster of symptoms including muscle spasms and join stiffness. The study used both real magnets and dummies (with no magnetic force) and was a double-blind trial, meaning that neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was getting the real magnets. After wearing the devices for 45 minutes, patients were asked to grade their pain. The results: 76 percent of those using the real thing said their pain had lessened in its significantly.

Before the Baylor research, Robert R. Holcomb, MD, Ph.D., a researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., published several promising studies on magnet therapy; he has 12 more papers in the works now, including four double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. The most compelling of his findings, presented in the journal Environmental Medicine (Volume 8, No. 2, 1991), suggests that magnets seem to reduce lower-back and knee pain. And there's other, more recent evidence:

A study conducted by Michael I. Weintraub, MD., clinical professor of pathology at New York Medical College in Briar Cliff Manor, found that diabetic patients given magnetic shoe inserts to wear for four months reported significantly less foot pain (American Journal of Pain Management, January 1998).

At the University of Virginia School of Nursing in Charlottesville, Ann Gill Taylor, RN, Ed.D., is now studying the effects of magnet-filled mattress pads on patients with fibromyalgia, a complicated condition that includes incapacitating pain and fatigue. Her research is being conducted for the school's Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Boca Raton, Fla., plastic surgeon Daniel Mann, MD, told a meeting of plastic surgeons last May that the patients in his study who'd just undergone face-lifts and other cosmetic procedures reported less discomfort and swelling and had quicker recovery times after wearing magnets. Dr. Mann is now conducting a double-blind version of the same experiment, which he hopes to publish a peer-reviewed journal.

Athletes get stuck on magnets
Meanwhile, magnets are becoming more popular for treating injuries in professional football. Ryan Vermillion, director of rehabilitation for the Miami Dolphins, calls magnets an adjunct to his entire rehab program and has used them for four years, treating everything from bumps and bruises to post-surgery pain in most of his players, including star quarterback Dan Marino.

Vermilion likes the fact that magnets don't have any known side effects. "My job is to treat the players' injuries. The last thing I want to do is make an it injury worse in the training room," he says. Football ballplayers aren't the only athletes using magnets these days. Yankees pitcher David Cone uses magnets, as does the 1998 Hawaiian Open winner John Houston.

Pain relief: real or imagined?
Before you go running for your wallet, you should know that for every study that shows the potential benefits of using magnets, there's another that shows none at all. And for every expert who touts the healing power of magnets, there's one who thinks their best use is finding true north.

For example, a study on the effects of magnetic foot pads on people with plantar heel pain syndrome (heel spurs), conducted at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine in New York City and reported in the January 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Podiatric Association, found no difference between people who wore the real magnets and those who got the fakes. Many experts think there isn't enough evidence to support their therapeutic use and question the quality of existing pro-magnet research.

To many in the medical community, the subject of magnetic healing seems custom-made for criticism and cries of fraud. It also brings to mind the placebo effect: the healing power of suggestion. In fact, in the Baylor study, a full 19 percent of the group using the sham magnets also reported lessened pain. "My personal belief is that it's quite unlikely that static magnets really work," says James D. Livingston, Ph.D., who studied magnets for 30 years as a researcher for General Electric before becoming an engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute Technology in Cambridge. But he concedes that there's enough evidence that magnets might work to keep an open mind. In fact, his own daughter's personal experience with magnet therapy further confounds Dr. Livingston. She has chronic fatigue syndrome and is in a support group with others who have the painful illness. Several of them tried magnets and reported relief — at first. The results didn't seem to last. "So we don't really know whether it was a placebo effect — or a real, temporary effect," says Dr. Livingston.

A common criticism of magnetic therapy is that the magnets used to treat pain carry only a tiny force. Magnet strength is measured in gauss, a unit related to the amount of iron a magnet can lift. The magnets used in commercial pain-relieving products (and employed in the studies discussed here) typically measure between 300 and 1,000 gauss. (For comparison, a refrigerator magnet is generally about 50 gauss.)

David Ramey, DVM., an equine veterinarian in Glendale, Calif., who has studied magnetic products for both horses and people, says that the therapeutic pads he has measured carry a magnetic field that can be measured only millimeters away from its surface; if you go more than a centimeter away, there's no force at all. Thus, any effect that an external magnet could have on the body must be, by definition, a very superficial one, he says.
That's not to say that people ought to be using stronger magnets, says Dr. Weintraub, who studied magnets on diabetic foot pain. "Applying the magnet constantly is what allows it to get in there and affect the nerve," he says. "At least, I think that's what it is."

While scientists struggle with the magnetic puzzle, consumers wait for definite answers — and buy magnetic products anyway, apparently swayed by all the promises. "This is an evolving technology that's going to have a big impact on medicine," predicts Dr. Holcomb. "We don't yet know the mechanism of healing, but I know that it's there."

How do they work... if they work?
Many magnet therapy advocates believe magnets either fight pain or stimulate circulation — or both. Since popular wisdom holds that one key to managing pain is managing the way the nervous system handles the messages it receives, it seems magnets may interfere with the transmission of impulses, making you feel as if your pain is gone. Another basic belief is that better circulation means less pain and swelling, and faster healing. Within these two schools of thought are two more ideas on the way magnets work:

Molecular changes. At the most basic level — within the molecules that make up the cells in your body — magnets might cause changes in ions, electrically charged particles that are responsible for your impulses and muscle contractions, says James D. Livingston, Ph.D., an engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and author of Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard University Press, 1996). Altering the movement or the electron state of these molecules may affect the transmission of nerve signals — such as the kind that scream "pain" — across the synapses that separate the cells.

Cellular changes. Magnets also create a change in the cells' action, such as altering the way a nerve cell handles a message of pain or how muscles cell responds to a signal from the nervous system. Cellular changes also would include the theory that magnets may stimulate circulation of blood because they attract iron that's contained in the hemoglobin, Dr. Livingston explains, though that theory is fairly outdated. "In my opinion, one way a magnet could work — if it works at all — is to change the way chemical messages are carried from one nerve to the next," Dr. Livingston says. "My guess is that it would be easier for a magnet to influence a tiny molecule than the cell as a whole, whether it's a blood cell, a nerve cell, or a muscle cell."

Confused? Join the crowd. "Don't be surprised if you can't understand all this," says Mark S. George, MD, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, who has studied electromagnets. "In science we can know that things happen and not understand the mechanisms. At this point even those of us who think we know a lot about magnets don't profess to know how they work."


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