After carrying out the first randomized placebo-controlled study on the use of magnetic and copper bracelets and wrist straps for relieving the pain of arthritis, researchers in the UK concluded that they were ineffective.

The study was led by Stewart Richmond, a Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, and was published online on 12 October in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Richmond’s team included colleagues from the universities of Hull, Durham, and the NHS.

Magnetic and copper bracelets are used all over the world by people with various chronic musculoskeletal disorders to help reduce pain. The industry is growing worldwide and annual sales for devices that incorporate some kind of magnet for therapeutic purposes now total around 4 billion US dollars.

Previous studies have suggested that such devices reduce pain associated with arthritis and similar conditions, but Richmond told the media that:

“This is the first randomised controlled trial to indicate that copper bracelets are ineffective for relieving arthritis pain.”

For the randomised double-blind placebo-controlled crossover trial, the researchers recruited 45 people aged 50 and over from general practices in rural and urban areas of Yorkshire. All the participants had already been diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

Each participant was asked to wear four wrist strap devices over a period of 16 weeks. The order in which they wore them was randomly determined.

The four types of device were: two wrist straps with differing levels of magnetism, a demagnetised wrist strap and a copper bracelet.

The participants were regularly assessed using three self-scoring instruments: the WOMAC Osteoarthritis Index, the McGill Pain Questionnaire- Pain Rating Index (PRI), a pain visual analogue scale (VAS), and their use of medication was also monitored.

The results showed there was no meaningful differences among the devices in terms of their effect on pain, stiffness, and physical function.

Richmond said that:

“It appears that any perceived benefit obtained from wearing a magnetic or copper bracelet can be attributed to psychological placebo effects,” he added, explaining that “people tend to buy them when they are in a lot of pain, then when the pain eases off over time they attribute this to the device”.

“However, our findings suggest that such devices have no real advantage over placebo wrist straps that are not magnetic and do not contain copper,” said Richmond, who advised that although these products don’t necessarily cause any harm to people with osteoarthritis, they should be careful about spending a lot of money on magnetic therapy.

“Magnets removed from disused speakers are much cheaper, but you would first have to believe that they could work,” he added.

“Therapeutic effects of magnetic and copper bracelets in osteoarthritis: A randomised placebo-controlled crossover trial.”
Stewart J. Richmond, Sally R. Brown, Peter D. Campion, Amanda J.L. Porter, Jennifer A. Klaber Moffett, David A. Jackson, Valerie A. Featherstone and Andrew J. Taylor.
Complementary Therapies in Medicine (in press, available online 12 October 2009).

Sources: The University of York.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD