The use of magnetic fields for healing is not modern. Long before the reasoning for their benefits was understood, ancient medicine was incorporating magnetic therapies into their medical therapies. Around 4000BC Hindus refer to treatment of disease with magnetized stones (lodestones). In 2000BC, Chinese physicians developed written protocols for using lodestones on acupuncture points, as described in “The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine.” There is some evidence that Egyptian physicians used lodestones with some regularity, and that Cleopatra herself wore a small magnet in an attempt to preserve her youth. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates was reported to use magnets for pain, and even had people in his healing centers lay their heads on lodestones to alleviate their headaches.
Early and Mid-Modern History
In the early 1500s, Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, credited as the founder of toxicology, appeared to have used lodestones to treat seizures and psychiatric disorders. He used the then-undiscovered or otherwise misunderstood principles of magnetism to guide his practices in chemistry and symptom management.
In the mid-18th century, German physician Franz Mesmer developed a theory called “animal magnetism” to describe what he saw as the natural energetic transference between all things. (This theory was later used by Scottish physician James Brain to develop hypnosis and is sometimes equated with the Qi of Traditional Chinese Medicine.) Mesmer treated his patients with magnets, particularly in an effort to help psychiatric disorders.
In the late-18th century, German physician Samuel Hahnemann, widely known as the father of alternative medicine’s homeopathy, was reputed to use magnets in his treatment programs.
In the 19th century, the science around magnetic fields and electromagnetism began to come into focus. English scientist Michael Faraday contributed a great deal to the study of electromagnetism, including the discovery of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and electrolysis. Faraday went on to create the first electromagnetic rotary device, forming the foundation of electric motors. His work in electromagnetism established for the first time that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field. This would later be named “Faraday’s Law”, one of the four Maxwell equations. Shortly before his death, he proposed the concept of electromagnetic fields – forces extending into the space around a conductor. He did not live to see the eventual acceptance of his theory.
Late in the 19th century, Russian engineer Georges Lakhovsky became the first to posit that each cell had its own frequency oscillating at a specific amplitude. He developed what is likely the first “energy medicine” device called the Multiple Wave Oscillator or Radio-Cellulo-Oscillator. The device produced a wide range of therapeutic frequencies, from ELF all the way up to gigahertz radiowaves.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla contributed to the development of the alternating current (AC) electrical system we use today, and discovered the rotating magnetic field (now that basis of most AC machinery). Tesla had an intimate understanding of the relationship between electricity and magnetic fields, and developed ideas for a huge number of inventions we use to this day: dynamos, induction motors, radar, X-Rays, and remote control being just a few. While the classic electrical device is the Tesla Coil (which produces streamers of electricity in a glass bulb – common attractions children’s museums) a lesser-known electrical coil was also invented by Tesla. This is the standard magnetic loop coil seen in all PEMF systems today.
In the 20th century, sophisticated static magnetic therapies were being developed in the Czech Republic, including checkerboard-designed magnetic foils. PEMF devices began there as well, and were introduced in Hungary in the early 1980s. Soon thereafter, PEMF therapy spread to other parts of Europe, with a wide variety of devices being made available through a growing number of manufacturers. Simultaneously, Eastern European use and research began to blossom.
The 1980s also saw the introduction of the first FDA-approved PEMF system, intended for use as a bone stimulator to treat nonunion fractures. The seminal book “Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life” was published in 1986 by Dr. Robert Becker and Gary Selden. This book is important because it was one of the first descriptions of the body as an electromagnetic apparatus and therefore very susceptible to magnetic field therapies. With the wide variety of devices available in Europe, by the late 1990s, much of Europe was already familiar with PEMF therapy.
The 1990s also saw discussion about the use of PEMF devices in space. It remains a common misconception that PEMFs were or are used in space. The international space station is in low Earth orbit, well within the Earth’s magnetic field. As such, there really is little necessity for the application of external magnetic fields to maintain a functional biomagnetic field. In a discussion with the medical director of Russia’s space program at a meeting in Germany, it was made very clear that PEMFs are not being used on astronauts, but that the study of what would happen to the body were it outside of the Earth’s magnetic field is of great interest and importance as we consider venturing further out into space.
There continue to be exciting new developments in the study of magnetic field stimulation of the body. There is a rapidly growing body of evidence to support the use of high intensity PEMFs, especially for the brain. This technology was developed primarily to avoid the need for electrical stimulation, which was effective but incredibly uncomfortable and widely considered barbaric. Even so, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) had been used for decades to treat psychiatric disorders. High intensity PEMF stimulation has been shown to have similar beneficial effects without the invasive or otherwise unbearable components of ECT, such as convulsions. This specific type of PEMF therapy is known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). A high intensity coil is placed at the side of the head. The intensity of the magnetic field produced by the coil is increased until it is sufficient enough to cause a muscle contraction of the hand. Then the intensity is either maintained or lowered slightly, and the coil is moved to the part of the brain requiring the treatment, depending on the psychiatric indication of interest. Studies are also being done with these high intensity magnetic fields to treat other parts of the body for a huge variety of medical conditions.
In the meantime, other lower intensity PEMF system continue to be developed, including for transcranial applications. Development of new systems is being made easier in the US by the recently updated FDA position allowing PEMF systems to be marketed without FDA approval if their primary purpose is for the management of wellness.