Quackwear: Big pseudoscience wants to sell you wearable metal to improve your health
Copper bracelet (Shutterstock)

Until only a few years ago, copper and magnetic wearables were products marketed mostly on cheesy late-night television commercials for their miraculous healing properties. But recently, these alternative therapy products have become fashionable, and even widely accepted as legitimate medicine, with sports leagues, professional athletes and celebrities endorsing their healing properties. It’s a $1 billion-a-year industry in the U.S., and it appears to be growing.

Copper bracelets, socks, compression sleeves and even athletic wear are said to have medicinal properties that alleviate joint pain and inflammation. Magnetic therapy is also said to relieve muscle and joint pain, and many of its proponents claim it can reverse degenerative diseases, improve circulation, manage depression and even cure cancer.

The belief in copper’s healing properties through dermal assimilation is based on centuries-old folklore, and was bolstered by a single research study from back in the '70s, which has since been regarded as dubious by others in the medical research community. No other remotely reliable study on copper wearables has been conducted until recently, and it directly contradicts the 1976 study’s findings.

Magnetic therapy, sometimes called magnotherapy, was first widely introduced in 18th-century Austria by physician and charlatan, Franz Mesmer, who believed there was a natural energetic transference that occurred among animated and inanimate objects, which he called “animal magnetism.” At one time, Mesmer believed magnets could create artificial tides in the body that could help cure "hysteria" and other psychological conditions. While Mesmer eventually dropped the idea of using magnets on his patients (believing that he, himself, contained high enough levels of animal magnetism to promote health) he’s widely accepted by history scholars as the father of magnotherapy.

The most common suggested mechanism is that wearing magnets helps improve blood flow and oxygenization in underlying tissues and organs, but the devices used in magnet therapy are far too weak to appreciably affect blood components, muscles, bones, blood vessels, or organs. A 1991 study showed that magnets had no effect whatsoever on blood flow. Other studies show that magnets had no effect on tissue oxygenization.

Other therapeutic qualities, such as restoring the body's hypothetical "electromagnetic energy balance," draw great skepticism from the medical community, since no such energy balance has ever been observed in physiological studies. Moreover, critics like to point out that even the strong magnetic fields used in magnetic resonance imaging, which are hundreds of times stronger than your typical magnet, should create changes in magnetic energy balance — if it indeed existed — that would be far more evident, but this is not the case.

While there is no solid scientific proof that magnet therapy works, one study in the British Medical Journal found a very slight decrease in pain from osteoarthritis of the hip and knee in a group wearing magnetic bracelets. But the study’s authors were not terribly confident in their findings because they couldn’t blind their subjects to the presence of magnetism in a bracelet, making it impossible to rule out the placebo effect.

Scant and questionable evidence by flawed studies backing magnotherapy and copper therapy doesn't stop television quacks like Dr. Oz from praising them. Oz has touted magnetic therapy and its "revolutionary" qualities and extolled the use of copper compression sleeves as part of a “new miracle plan” to boost energy and increase blood flow. But should you believe typical shilling for Big Pseudoscience by Dr. Oz or rely on new peer-reviewed scientific evidence from research that revisits the efficacy of these so-called therapeutic products?

A recent study by the University of York’s Health Sciences Department has found that copper or magnets worn on the body have no real effect on pain, swelling or disease progression in rheumatoid arthritis. The randomized controlled trial concluded that copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps worn by 70 symptomatic patients over a five-month period showed no reported improvement in pain and disability. Further, the study’s subjects provided blood samples after wearing the devices to monitor for changes in inflammation. After analyzing their findings, the research team found no reportable difference between the control group wearing placebo devices and those wearing magnotherapy or copper therapy bracelets.

The 2013 report, published in the journal PLOS ONE, a rigorously peer-reviewed non-profit science resource, concluded that magnetic and copper bracelets had “no meaningful therapeutic effects beyond those of a placebo, which was not magnetic and did not contain copper.”

An earlier study by the same researchers also cast doubt on the effectiveness of copper and magnetic devices for osteoarthritis. The later study built on these findings.

Stewart Richmond, a research fellow and author of the study, said “people who suffer with rheumatoid arthritis may be better off saving their money, or spending it on other complementary interventions, such as dietary fish oils for example, which have far better evidence for effectiveness.”

Richmond says that placing faith in copper and magnetic therapies might cause a placebo effect and that people typically begin to wear such products during a flareup. When the symptoms subside naturally, they may believe the copper or magnetic products provided the therapeutic effect.

“Pain varies greatly over time in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and the way we perceive pain can be altered significantly by the power of the mind,” Richmond says.

Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist and assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine, says the claims made by the marketers of copper and magnetic therapy products are implausible and lack sufficient evidence, which adds up to more than $1 billion in wasted healthcare dollars.

“We have to confront the fact that this is what has and will happen in the absence of adequate regulation—the public will waste money on useless therapies, their attention and resources may be diverted from more effective interventions, and some unscientific interventions may be directly harmful,” Novella says on the Science-Based Medicine website.

Novella says consumers shouldn’t expect the manufacturers of these bracelets to do quality studies on their products’ efficacy, since there is no incentive for them to do that. They are content just marketing them. “Sellers of copper bracelets were happy to do so for decades without studying their claims,” he says.

The Titanium Standard

Ionic metal therapy is relatively new on the pseudo-medicine scene. Ionized bracelets and necklaces, which first came on the homeopathic medicine scene in the mid-'70s, are purported to have a positive impact on the “Qi” or life force, of the wearer. Ionized bracelets, marketed by companies such as Q-Ray, Rayma and Bio-Ray became popular just over a decade ago, after Q-Ray marketed its bracelet on television infomercials, saying it relieved the pain of arthritis through the manipulation of the Qi.

About that time, the Mayo Clinic conducted a randomized, double-blind trial on ionized jewelry that found that such products were worthless as a health care product and that no more than a placebo effect was apparent by wearing them.

But evidence that ionized jewelry is no more effective than “magic crystals,” didn't stop manufacturers like Q-Ray from making medical claims. This drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission in 2006, which found the bracelets to be "part of a scheme devised to defraud" consumers.

Still the findings by the medical community and the government’s consumer protection agency have not deterred other corporations from manufacturing similar products.

Today, jewelry said to change the ionic alignment of the wearer is sold in the form of titanium, a paramagnetic metal with fairly low electrical and thermal conductivity. Marketers of titanium health wearables say the metal improves circulation and reduces muscle stress. Titanium necklaces, often braided with colorful nylon, have become quite popular with professional athletes. Notable sports stars who wear these necklaces include NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (husband of Fox & Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck), and baseball pitching stars like Justin Verlander, Joba Chamberlain and Josh Beckett.

Phiten, a prominent titanium necklace manufacturer, touts itself as the manufacturer of “metal-infused wellness materials.” It has more than 130 retail stores in Japan and product licensing deals with the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball. In 2005, Phiten told the New York Times its necklaces were worn by hundreds of MLB players, yet not all players buy into the pseudoscience and superstition. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine says he wore a necklace once when he was with the New York Mets, but it didn't help him.

"You tell a baseball player something will make him feel better, and he'll take it. I tried it when I pitched on Sunday and I lost, so needless to say, I'll never wear it again," Glavine said back in 2005.

In baseball, a sport whose athletes are notoriously superstitious, the necklaces are now an ubiquitous part of the wardrobe worn by pitchers who claim they leave them less sore after games and help them recover faster from injuries. Phiten claims its necklaces, which retail at upwards of $25, improve the ionic alignment of the body, particularly at what it calls the body’s “crucial motor points," and stabilize the flow of electricity through the body when it’s stressed or worn down.

Manufacturers also claim their necklaces, which often incorporate other magnets, provide pain relief from bursitis, sciatica, tendonitis, certain types of arthritis and numerous other conditions.

But doctors and scientists say there’s no evidence titanium bracelets provide any health benefits, and they’re nothing more than good luck charms.

“There’s no science and physiology,” said Orrin Sherman, chief of sports medicine at the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. “There’s just no way the chemical structure of the body can be influenced by magnets that small. It’s all superstitions with no scientific basis.”

Perhaps that’s how these products should be regarded—as amulets and talismans. Nothing wrong with that. If only their marketers didn’t willfully conflate science with magic.

One titanium necklace retailer, Ace Magnetics, says a necklace it sells with tourmaline crystals has mystical properties that dispel fear, negativity and grief—and they’ve got proof.

“The tourmaline of all colors protects the wearer against many dangers and misfortune," literature from Ace Magnetics reads. "Although difficult to grab a hold of precisely what is so popular about tourmaline – titanium as a bracelet or necklace from a scientific or empirical standpoint there is no arguing with many professional athletes overseas and right here in the U.S.”

No, there is no arguing with scientific evidence provided by professional athletes. Who needs the advice of doctors and medical researchers when you can get your evidence from men who play children's games for a living, and who believe God helps them to defeat their rivals on the playing field?