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MEDICINE | THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Magnetic insoles attract interest, but do healing claims stick?

Ads assert that they increase the flow of iron-rich blood to ease foot pain, boost energy and provide comfort.

December 25, 2006|Chris Woolston | Special to The Times

If the patients at Dr. John Pagliano's foot clinic are any indication, many people are aching to try magnetic insoles. "Patients ask about them constantly," says the Long Beach podiatrist.

The product: Magnetic insoles are thin cushions that fit inside a shoe. Marketed in newspapers, in-flight magazines and on the Web, the insoles come in different sizes, colors and magnetic strengths. Typical products are a bit weaker than refrigerator magnets.

The claims: Ads for the insoles make the products seem like must-have accessories for anyone with feet. Nearly all of them claim that the magnets ease pain, or at least enhance comfort. Some also claim to increase energy.

Many sales pitches include a scientific explanation for the relief: Magnets allegedly increase circulation and warmth by attracting iron-rich blood to the foot area. Similar claims show up for all sorts of magnetic products, from necklaces to pet beds.

The bottom line: When people try magnetic insoles, the results aren't always electrifying. "We've never had anybody come back and say that they feel a lot better," Pagliano says. "We gave up on them."

So far, insoles haven't stood up to scientific scrutiny either.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. in 2003, Dr. Mark Winemiller and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tested magnetic and nonmagnetic insoles on 101 patients with foot pain. (Fifty-seven patients received magnetic insoles, the others received regular insoles -- and neither scientist nor patient knew who was getting what.)

After wearing the insoles daily for eight weeks, both groups of patients reported pain relief, but the run-of-the-mill insoles worked just as well as the magnetic variety.

The good news about magnetic insoles is that they can ease foot pain by providing cushioning and support -- just like regular insoles. "If you're going to get an insole," Winemiller says, "I wouldn't bother with a magnet."

Winemiller says there's not much evidence that the types of magnets found in insoles have any effect on the body, good or bad.

Despite advertising claims, he finds it unlikely that a magnet could attract blood or improve circulation. Even the huge magnetic fields created by MRI machines don't alter blood flow, he notes.

Human bodies simply aren't very sensitive to magnetic fields, adds John Farley, a professor of physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Try sticking your hand inside a horseshoe magnet," he says. "Nothing happens."

Farley sees irony in the magnet therapy craze. He well remembers recent alarmist claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation created by power lines. People living beneath power lines receive a much lower dose of radiation than people who wear magnetic products, he says.

In Farley's opinion, magnetic products and power lines almost certainly have identical effects on health. Which is to say: nada.

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