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Many people believe that magnets and copper bracelets can help treat symptoms of arthritis. However, studies have not shown any evidence for the effectiveness of these products. This article outlines whether these are effective in treatment of arthritis.

Arthritis, a disease characterized by the inflammation of joints, currently has no cure. There are more than a 100 individual subtypes of arthritis, with the most common ones being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There are several effective treatments that can help reduce symptoms, slow down disease progression and maintain functionality of joints. Treatments that are generally recommended by doctors include medication, physical therapy and exercise. However, some people believe that copper bracelets and magnetic objects are ancient remedies for the treatment of arthritis.

For a long time, magnets have been believed to carry healing power for a variety of diseases. Additionally, once it was discovered that copper is present in our blood, it fueled a belief that arthritis develops due to a lack of copper. Copper bracelets came into use because of the idea that the body can become deficient in copper absorbed from the diet. Hence, the belief is that copper bracelets can help emit or leach copper from the bracelets into the skin, which will then ease or reduce joint inflammation. This idea dates back to the theory of metallotherapy (metal therapy) in the mid-19th century. The theory has since been debunked.

With regards to the use of magnets, the idea is that magnets, when placed against the skin, help improve iron circulation in the blood. This helps deliver nutrients to the joints. However, iron is not actually a ferromagnetic (attracted to magnets) compound and the type of magnetic wrist straps that are commercially available do not affect blood flow.

The popularity of copper bracelets and magnets is further reinforced by the fact that it is a relatively simple and inexpensive method of treatment. People with chronic diseases are always looking for safe, natural treatments that are not hard on the patient and are easy to undergo. Hence, magnets and copper bracelets are especially alluring.

Do copper or magnetic bracelets actually help treat arthritis?

The short answer is no. Two British studies tested the effectiveness of magnetic wrist strips and copper bracelets in a group of 45 osteoarthritis patients and 346 rheumatoid arthritis patients. These studies found that the magnetic wrist strips and copper bracelets did not work any better than the dummy devices (placebos).

Another study found that, again, magnetic wrist straps didn’t work for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Subjects in the study wore four different devices, each for five weeks at a time for a total of 20 weeks. These devices included a magnetic wrist strap, a copper bracelet (used as a “placebo” device as prior studies did not show a benefit), a wrist strap that emits a very weak magnetic field (another control) and a strap that has been demagnetized (a third control). This was a randomized study and therefore, neither the participants nor the researchers knew exactly which patients wore which device at what time. The goal of the randomization was to confuse the participants so they couldn’t tell which device was the real magnetic strap and which ones were the control.

At the end of the study, similar to prior studies, researchers found that there were no improvements in any of the outcomes that they measured including joint swelling, tenderness, physical function, and inflammation. Interestingly, most study results have a bit of noise (inconsistency) in the data. However, in the case of this study, the results were pretty clear cut. The data was consistent in that there is no doubt that these devices are no better than placebo in treatment of arthritis. Hence, there is very good evidence regarding lack of efficacy of these devices.

So does that mean copper or magnetic bracelets can’t help me at all?

There is a type of scientific phenomenon known as the placebo effect, which occurs when people that are on a certain type of treatment expect and believe that the treatment will work. This belief can be powerful and can actually improve patients’ condition. Hence, while the copper or magnetic bracelets might not have a direct scientific effect on the condition, it can still be helpful as researchers did not find that there were any major side effects due to its use. However, it is very important to make sure they if you do use them, you don’t use them in place of actual treatment but rather as an add-on.

So why do people think that copper or magnetic bracelets work?

The reason behind why some people believe that these work is because of a simple thing known as a logical fallacy. Essentially, people try new treatments when their symptoms are at their worst. Once their symptoms subside, as they will do whether or not they were on treatment, they attribute their better condition to the new treatment. In fact, if people used these types of treatments when their condition is mild then they will actually believe the opposite and believe that the treatment worsened their condition.

  • Cronan, Terry A., et al. "Prevalence of the use of unconventional remedies for arthritis in a metropolitan community." Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology 32.12 (1989): 1604-1607.
  • Walker, W_ R_, and Daphne M. Keats. "An investigation of the therapeutic value of the'copper bracelet'-dermal assimilation of copper in arthritic/rheumatoid conditions." Agents and Actions 6.4 (1976): 454-459.
  • Richmond, Stewart J., et al. "Copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps for rheumatoid arthritis–analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects: a randomised double-blind placebo controlled crossover trial." PloS one 8.9 (2013): e71529.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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