The Food and Drug Administration doesn't approve magnets for therapeutic use, but Dan Marino does — as do plenty of the Miami Dolphins quarterback's peers. And when you've mended your sore joints and muscles, you can use them to post your grocery list on the refrigerator. For decades, so-called therapeutic magnets have enjoyed a vogue among certain ailing athletes, and now their popularity is burgeoning. Nikken, the McDonald's of magnets, reported worldwide sales (including nutritional supplements) of $1.2 billion in 1996. One eighth-inch-thick magnet costs between $20 and $100.
So how are magnetized wafers said to work? "Magnets stimulate electrical fields in the body," says Dr. Ted Zablotsky, president of BIOflex Medical Magnetics, "which increases circulation, thus relieving pain." Many who've strapped magnets to sore spots — from shinsplints to bad backs — swear by them.
Predictably, the medical establishment remains more reserved. "Increased circulation would reduce inflammation and possibly hasten healing," admits exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, a vice-president of the American Council on Exercise. But, he adds, nothing's been done to prove that magnets affect circulation — yet. The National Institutes of Health deemed the trend important enough to grant $1.1 million to a University of Virginia medical researcher who's planning an independent study on alternative methods of healing, including magnets, this fall.
Meanwhile, magnet makers stand by sales figures, steering clear of direct medical claims and thus the wrath of the FDA. "They're an excellent relaxation system," says Clifton Jolley of Nikken. Indeed, one of their more popular offerings is the magnetic mattress pad (a whopping $690 for a king size). We can't verify its healing powers, but the firm foam egg-carton surface sure is comfortable.