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Magnets may be useful

Shetal Patel (Cavalier Daily via U-WIRE)/CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Imagine living every day of your life in pain, not knowing what causes it or how to treat it. Thousands of Americans suffering from a condition called fibromyalgia live with this feeling, but University of Virginia researchers may have found a way to reduce these patients' pain using magnetic sleep pads.

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a study last month based on University research showing that a specific type of magnetic sleep pad decreased the intensity of pain in fibromyalgia patients.

Fibromyalgia is a syndrome, or collection of symptoms, that is "characterized by widespread pain, fatigue, fitful or unrestful sleep, anxiety and other systemic kinds of symptoms," said Nursing Prof. Ann Gill Taylor, co-investigator on the study and director of the University's Center for Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Taylor estimates this condition affects 2 to 11 percent of the American population.

The investigators placed magnets between the mattress and box spring of each subject's bed. Investigators examined data collected from 94 subjects randomly assigned to one of five groups.

Two groups received placebos, fake magnets that looked the same as the active magnets but were demagnetized. The study was double blind, meaning during data collection neither the patients nor the researchers knew which groups had the placebos.

Two of the study's groups were given active magnetic sleep pads. One of these magnets provided a uniform magnetic field. The second magnet produced a magnetic field of varying intensity at different points above the mattress. Finally, the fifth group was kept on a standard care regimen for fibromyalgia patients.

Over the course of the next six months investigators monitored the intensity of the patients' pain and their functional status, or their ability to complete everyday tasks.

The study found a statistically significant decrease in pain intensity only in subjects who used the uniform magnetic sleep pads. And although improvements in general ability to function did not have statistical significance, they still were greater than those in the placebo groups' patients, Taylor said.

Alan P. Alfano, medical director of the University's HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, was the study's principal investigator.

Although these results are a start, Alfano and his collaborators eventually plan to conduct further studies on the subject.

The Medical Center diagnoses fibromyalgia based on guidelines set forth by the American College of Rheumatology. Under these guidelines, patients must have experienced pain for more than three months on both sides of the body, Alfano said.

Additionally, the patient must have a mild amount of pain in 11 of 18 designated tender points for a fibromyalgia diagnosis.

Fibromyalgia's cause is unknown, and current treatments generally are limited to alleviating specific symptoms through pain relievers, anti-depressants, sedatives and physical exercise or therapy.

Other patients "very frequently turn to complementary and alternative medical approaches when nothing else is able to give them any relief from their suffering," said George T. Gillies, professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and one of the collaborators on the study.

This is why researchers on the magnet study chose fibromyalgia patients as their subjects, despite the fact that the magnet manufacturers do not specifically advertise their products for fibromyalgia treatment, Taylor said.

Medical professionals still are not sure exactly how magnet therapy affects the body, she said. "The persons who are suffering from fibromyalgia need to know whether these things work or don't work. Either way, it's useful information."

She suggested that a longer study may provide more useful data. "We certainly have the data now that would serve as some pilot data for another study."

For now, Alfano and Taylor are excited at the possibilities of magnet therapy. "We basically took a shot in the dark, and its surprising that we found anything," Alfano said.

(c) 2001 Cavalier Daily via U-WIRE

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