Electromagnetic Therapies

The biological effects of magnetism, and of what eventually was identified as electricity, have been studied since the time of early Greek and Roman civilizations. It is believed that lodestones, pieces of naturally occurring minerals with magnetic properties, were found thousands of years ago, when people literally stumbled upon them.

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, lodestones were thought to have curative powers and were used to treat gout, arthritis, baldness and other ailments, as described by medieval writers. Scholars of the time also believed that magnets could cause and cure melancholy. Aphrodisiac powers were attributed to lodestones probably because of their "magnetic" ability to attract.

Along with the magical ideas, magnets were applied to solve practical problems such as locating shattered knife blades and other iron objects in wounded people. A century later, the Swiss physician Paracelsus studied magnets as a possible treatment for epilepsy.

Franz Mesmer, an eighteenth-century Viennese physician, developed a theory of "animal magnetism," which he believed to be a basic biophysical force similar to gravity and capable of producing profound neuropsychiatric and physical effects. His first scientific writing on this topic, "On the Medicinal Uses of the Magnet," was published in 1775. Although he credited his successful treatment of a woman with numerous complaints to a magnet's ability to realign polarity in her internal organs, it soon became clear that he had discovered hypnotism instead. That is the source of the word "mesmerize." "Animal magnetism" later was shown to be not a biophysical force, but a reaction to the power of suggestion. (For the use of hypnosis in reducing stress, see Chapter 15.)

Interest in the therapeutic potential of both electricity and magnets persisted throughout history, with most ideas and products eventually deemed pure quackery. The nineteenth century, called by medical historians the "golden age of medical electricity," was also known as the "electromagnetic era of medical quackery." A popular and typical electromagnetic device called the I-ON-A-CO was sold in the late 1920s by Gaylord Wilshire, for whom Hollywood's Wilshire Boulevard was named. It was shaped like a large horse collar and worn over the shoulders to cure any ailment that might arise. It didn't work.

Electromagnetic therapy is called by many names: bioelectricity, electronic devices, electromagnetism, biomagnetism, magnetobiology (in the former USSR), electromagnetic or magnetic field therapy, and magnetic healing. As science learned more about electricity, entrepreneurs created a variety of "black boxes" connected to electrical sources. These were promoted as "energy-healing" devices, or as "vibrational medicine." Less than a century ago, advertisements touting electronic cure-alls were prevalent in U.S. newspapers and magazines.

A broad variety of electric and magnetic instruments were marketed, sometimes at outrageous prices, to compete with mainstream medicine for the treatment of many ailments. Electronic devices, including the Auto Electronic Radioclast, Electron-ORay, Depoloray, and many others, were promoted as cures for cancer and other diseases. They were marketed into the 1990s.

The manufacture and distribution of such fake devices eventually were regulated by the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Act required proper labeling of medical devices and the restriction of claims to those that could be proven. Some devices, such as powerful magnets sold to cure cancer, continue to be marketed, skirting the regulations by careful wording of curative claims.

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