NO ONE was more skeptical about using magnets for pain relief than Dr. Carlos Vallbona, former chairman of the department of community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
So Dr. Vallbona
was amazed when a study he
did found that small, low intensity magnets worked, at least for patients experiencing symptoms that can develop years after polio.
had long been fascinated by testimonials about magnets from his
patients, and even from medical leaders.
interest in magnet therapy became more serious in 1994 when he
and a colleague, Carlton F. Hazlewood, tried them for their own knee pain.
The pain was gone in minutes. ''That was too good to be true,'' Dr. Vallbona
knew that the power of suggestion can fool both patient and doctor.
also wondered: could strapping small, low intensity magnets to the most sensitive areas of the body for several minutes relieve chronic muscular and joint pains among patients in his
post-polio clinic at Baylor's Institute for Rehabilitation Research
Aware of the medical profession's skepticism about magnet therapy, Dr. Vallbona
sought to conduct science's most rigorous type of study.
Participants would agree to allow the investigators to randomly assign them to groups getting treatment with active magnets or sham devices.
But neither the patients nor the doctors treating them would know what therapy was used on which patient.
First, Dr. Vallbona
informally tested magnets on a few patients.
One was a priest with post-polio syndrome who celebrated mass with difficulty due to marked back pain that prevented him from raising his left hand.
After applying a magnet for a few minutes the pain was gone, Dr. Vallbona
recalled, and, ''the priest said this was a miracle.''
Then a human experimentation committee allowed Dr. Vallbona
to test 50 volunteers with magnets that at 300 to 500 gauss, were slightly stronger than refrigerator magnets.
They were made in different sizes so they could fit over the anatomic area identified as setting off their pain.
It was difficult to design a system to prevent participants from learning whether they were being treated with a magnet or a sham.
So Dr. Vallbona
asked Magnaflex Inc.
, a magnet manufacturer in Corpus Christi, Tex., to prepare active magnets and inactive devices that could not be told apart.
The devices were labeled in code.