Many people say copper wristbands help ease the aches and pains of stiff and sore joints.
It is certainly true that people do say this - even scientific research provides evidence that people taking part in trials sometimes say bracelets help with their pain.
It is also true, however, that online shops and forums use marketing pitches to remind us of this fact that people do sometimes say that copper bracelets help - and people say it for good reason.
But why do people say copper worn around the wrist is beneficial, and how does the evidence stack up?
Do copper bracelets have a beneficial effect, or not - especially for the arthritis pain that people often use them for?
Part of the problem in trying to answer the efficacy question is that copper bracelets almost certainly do no harm, and as they are not drugs or medical devices, there is no regulation of the health claims that are made for them.
Also, to find out if they provide any benefit, there has been only limited research into the use of copper bracelets.
This article will examine the research that has been done into any pain-relieving power - and then explain why copper wristbands are bought for health reasons.
What is the evidence behind the use of copper bracelets?
For the question of what evidence there is for the health effects of copper bracelets, the scientists give a short answer.
Copper bracelets can be beautiful. Do they also have healing power?
- No good evidence that they reduce pain or inflammation
- Fairly good evidence that they do not have any clinical effect.
These conclusions come from the best data out there so far: a widely available scientific comparison of different copper and magnetic bracelets used by people with rheumatoid arthritis, published in 2013.1,2
This study was designed in such a way that, while it was not a large study, there were enough people taking part and wearing different kinds of bracelets that, should there have been even a minimal clinical improvement of 20% in pain ratings, the study would have found it. There was not.
The trial adds to a previous disappointment about the benefits of wearing metals in this way. A previous study looked at magnetic bracelets. It was the single randomized, placebo-controlled trial on the use of magnet therapy for rheumatoid arthritis that had been conducted before the new experiment on different kinds of bracelet.
Dr. Stewart Richmond, who also led the 2013 study from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York in the UK, wrote in the published paper for magnetic bracelets:
"The results of this trial, which compared strong versus weak magnets strapped to the knee, showed that there was no statistical difference in pain outcomes between experimental and control groups."
And about the latest findings from comparing copper-only, magnetic and placebo bracelets, Dr. Richmond writes:
"It's a shame that these devices don't seem to have any genuine benefit. They're so simple and generally safe to use."
But he goes on to say that "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."
How scientists broke their news of first full trial for pain bracelets
The news from the team behind the 2013 PLOS ONE study in 70 people with rheumatoid arthritis that caused pain. The researchers tested bracelets so that all involved with the study did not know which were placebo (not copper and not magnetic) and which were copper or varying strengths of magnet.
Using copper bracelets for pain relief
When we see the sales descriptions for copper bracelets, sold within a wider industry for magnetic wristbands estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, we find that the information is often:
- Impressive - "worn for healing by mankind for centuries" or "made from the finest pure copper"
- Accurate - "copper is essential for our bodies" or "the metal has a natural ability to conduct heat."
But what is the relevance of these two types of information when it comes to any effect against disease? What is the relevance to the human body at all, when copper is worn as a bracelet?
Reputable sellers try not to tie such information to any direct claims for health, and that is because, however impressive or accurate this type of information is, it is not proof of any effect and provides no real promise.
Even when reasonable product statements testify that "many people wear these for health benefits," or many people say "these work for their condition," these statements are not necessarily proof of a health benefit.
Why do people say copper bracelets work for them?
While the claims for health benefit offer no real proof in of themselves, these tenuously impressive, accurate claims are compelling - it can be easy to believe the copper bracelets are working, and influential friends and family could be repeating the claims, too.
Such a belief in a benefit is what results in a placebo effect, and the placebo effect is a very real phenomenon.
What symptoms were measured in the 2013 Richmond trial?
- If one of the types of bracelet in the trial - whether magnetic, copper or placebo - could produce a minimum 20% improvement in tender and swollen joints, the results would have been able to show this
- Whatever the findings would be against this measure of symptoms, the trial design meant that the conclusion would be reported with a fair level of certainty
- Joints were assessed for pain and disability by both patient and doctor, and effort was made to ensure neither could be certain what type of the bracelet was being worn or when
- Below the level of 20% clinical improvement,3 doctors and patients in research studies may not consider the slightly reduced symptoms to be worthwhile from any new rheumatoid arthritis treatment. Small improvements also need to be proven by large studies, to help rule out the influence of chance effects not related to the intervention.
But the placebo effect of belief is at the crux of the scientific understanding of why people use copper bracelets to treat their arthritis pain.
Copper is an element. Discs of the metal were worn for rheumatism in the early 1800s, but they were first shown to have a "psychogenic" effect in 1878.
The belief may have its own primary benefit against feeling pain, but belief also has an influence on the observations that people make about their symptoms of pain and inflammation.
One classic example, which Dr. Richmond also cites in his papers, is the power of association between things that you think are happening as a result of something that you are doing at the time. But some things can be happening independently, regardless of the association you make with any intervention - in this case, wearing bracelets.
Such associations can be reinforced further by the natural course of chronic pain conditions. Dr. Richmond gives the example of rheumatoid arthritis, explaining that people may begin wearing the copper and magnetic bracelets "during a flare-up period."
As symptoms subside naturally over time, a patient may "confuse this with a therapeutic effect" that they believe is coming from the bracelet.
"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," Dr. Richmond adds.
Other forms of copper - recent developments in the news from MNT
In very early, fundamental biological research, scientists reporting in March 2015 had designed a copper complex that offers a completely new compound to research further against cancer.
New research suggests copper that enters the body at levels encountered in the average modern diet may be leading, eventually, to Alzheimer's disease - by reducing the body's ability to clear away toxic proteins in the brain, and also by encouraging the clumping of those proteins.
It has been known for a while that copper surfaces stop various bacteria, fungi and viruses. This September 2013 study showed that copper alloy surfaces also "rapidly kill norovirus" - the winter vomiting bug that can quickly spread.
The limitations of medicine for treating arthritis pain
Another factor of life with aches, pains and inflammation is that modern medicine does not offer a completely effective remedy itself - far from it.
In general, pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in providing us with drugs that can often help control the pain of chronic conditions but that leave us wanting for a complete cure.
Even when patients know the reality is that a chronic condition cannot yet be cured, they may still hope for something that can at least slow down or halt further disease progress.
But, in the specific cases of the two major forms of arthritis:
- Osteoarthritis1 - OA is wear and tear leading to sore or stiff joints, with stiffness after resting that can improve with movement, and pain that can worsen after activity or toward the end of the day. The condition can only be managed, using painkilling drugs and lifestyle measures such as physical activity
- Rheumatoid arthritis2 - RA is when our own immune system attacks our joints, producing symptoms that vary but often involve pain, fatigue and warm, swollen, inflamed-looking joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is treated with analgesics but can also often be treated with antirheumatic and biological drugs, both of which are designed to counter the autoimmunity.
Find out more about the differences between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
But having outlined that pharmaceuticals can provide answers when scientifically possible, researchers and companies marketing their final products are no less prone than anyone else to making bold claims about drugs.
However well-regulated the industry is, it can raise the expectations for drugs. In addition, researchers can also - albeit rarely - get the testing wrong, or simply fail to predict some of the safety problems that can occasionally arise.
A combination of frustration with a difficult condition and the limits of our own bodies and of doctors, medicine and pharmaceuticals can lead patients to trying anything. We sometimes reach for the "magical" even before trying the things that might actually work.
We will probably continue, for as long as copper bracelets are considered harmless, to allow the people selling these alternative options to make some of the wilder claims for them. "It is believed" that these bracelets "have an anti-inflammatory effect," go the claims, but without mentioning who believes them or why.
Claimed actions of the bracelets are also found in hints and suggestions such as "the metal reacts with your sweat and may leave a green stain on your skin." It sounds magical - and of course people should be warned about staining their clothes - but this is the same reaction that turns copper green wherever it becomes exposed.
And it is one of the many truly magical benefits of copper to society - the metal barely corrodes any further once green, and so forms a waterproof covering over the buildings we have been sheltering under for hundreds of years.
In spite of all the science, there may be some benefit from buying copper bracelets, particularly if they are affordable, a patient believes in them and they come to no harm from missing out on other treatment that has been proven to be effective.
Patients should be aware, however, that any perceived physical benefits are most likely to be due to the placebo effect rather than the physical properties of copper bracelets.