Review Article| Volume 82, ISSUE 9, P1261-1269, September 2001

A historical perspective of the popular use of electric and magnetic therapy


      Basford JR. A historical perspective of the popular use of electric and magnetic therapy. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2001;82:1261-9. Objectives: To review the history of the therapeutic use of static electric and magnetic fields and to understand its implications for current popular and medical acceptance of these and other alternative and complementary therapies. Data Sources: Comprehensive MEDLINE (1960–2000) and CINAHL (1982–2000) computer literature searches by using key words such as electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic, therapy, medicine, EMF, history of medicine, and fields. Additional references were obtained from the bibliographies of the selected articles. In addition, discussions were held with curators of medical history museums and supplemental searches were made of Internet sources through various search engines. Study Selection: Primary references were used whenever possible. In a few instances, secondary references, particularly those requiring translations of early texts, were used. Data Synthesis: The use of electric and magnetic forces to treat disease has intrigued the general public and the scientific community since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. The popularity of these therapies has waxed and waned over the millennia, but at all times the popular imagination, often spurred by dynamic and colorful practitioners of pseudoscience, has been more excited than the medical or political establishment. In fact, a pattern seems to reappear. In each era, unsophisticated public acceptance is met first with medical disdain, then with investigation, and, finally, with a failure to find objective evidence of efficacy. This pattern continues today with the public acceptance of magnetic therapy (and alternative and complementary medicine in general) far outstripping acceptance by the medical community. Conclusion: The therapeutic implications of applying electrical and magnetic fields to heal disease have continually captured the popular imagination. Approaches thousands of years apart can be remarkably similar, but, in each era, proof has been lacking and the prevailing medical establishment has remained unconvinced. Interest persists today. Although these agents may have a future role in the healing of human disease, their history and a minimal scientific rationale makes it unlikely that the dichotomy between the hopes of the public and the medical skepticism will disappear. © 2001 by the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • Mourino MR
        From Thales to Lauterbur, or from the lodestone to MR imaging: magnetism and medicine. Radiology 1991;180:593-612.
        Radiology. 1992; 182 (Comment in:): 897-898
      1. Peregrinus P. Epistola Petri Peregrini de Maricourt ad Sygerum de Foucaucourt, Militem, De Magnete. Italy: Privately published; 1289.

        • Licht S
        History of electrotherapy. Therapeutic electricity and ultraviolet radiation.
        in: 2nd ed. : Elizabeth Licht, New Haven (CT)1967: 1-70
        • Benjamin P
        The intellectual rise in electricity.
        : Longmans, Green, London1895
        • Morgagni JB
        De Sedibas exercise test causis morborum per anatomen indigatis.
        : Privately published, Italy1761
        • Quinan JR
        The use of the magnet in medicine.
        Md Med J. 1885; 14: 460-465
        • Macklis RM
        Magnetic healing, quackery, and the debate about the health effects of electromagnetic fields.
        Ann Intern Med. 1993; 118: 376-383
        • Armstrong D
        • Armstrong EM
        The great American medicine show.
        in: : Prentice Hall, New York1991: 185-194
        • Butterfield J
        Dr Gilbert's magnetism.
        Lancet. 1991; 338: 1576-1579
        • Hauksbee F
        Biography—catalog of the scientific community (Francis Hauksbee).
        (Compiled by Westfall RS, Dept of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University) (Available Accessed)
        • Watson W
        The electrical boy.
        (Available Accessed)
        • Mesmer FA
        Memoire sur la decouverte du magnetisme animal.
        : Chez P. Fr. Didot Le jeune, Geneva1779
        • Mesmer FA
        Mesmerism [translation of the original writings of F A Mesmer].
        (translator) : Kauffman, Los Altos (CA)1980
        • Shulman S
        Electromagnetic risk. All aboard the bandwagon.
        Nature. 1990; 346: 597
        • Mackay C
        Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.
        : Wordsworth, London1852
        • Franklin B
        Report of the commission charged by the King of France with the examination of animal magnetism.
        : Bailly, Paris1784
        • Young JH
        The toadstool millionaires.
        in: : Princeton Univ Pr, Princeton (NJ)1961: 17-30
        • Lawrence RM
        Primitive psychotherapy and quackery.
        in: : Houghton-Mifflin, Boston1910: 140-141
        • Milstead KL
        • Davis JB
        • Dobelle M
        Quackery in the medical device field.
        in: Proceedings of the Second National AMA/FDA Congress on Medical Quackery1963 Oct 25-26: 1-103 (Washington (DC).)
        • Holbrook SH
        The golden age of quackery.
        in: : Macmillan, New York1959: 18-32
        • Thacher CJ
        Plain road to health without the use of medicine.
        : James and Morse, Chicago1886
        • Peterson F
        • Kennelly AE
        Physiological experiments with magnets at the Edison laboratory.
        N Y Med J. 1892; 56: 729-732
        • Jauchem JR
        • Merritt JH
        The epidemiology of exposure to electromagnetic fields: an overview of the recent literature.
        J Clin Epidemiol. 1991; 44: 895-906
        • Michaelson SM
        Influence of power frequency electric and magnetic fields on human health.
        Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1987; 502: 55-75
        • Shore RE
        Electromagnetic radiations and cancer. Cause and prevention.
        Cancer. 1988; 62: 1747-1754
        • Kaiser J
        Panel finds EMFs pose no threat [news] [published erratum appears in Science 1997;275:741].
        Science. 1996; 274 (Comment in: Science 1996;274:1449-50): 910
        • Kaiser J
        NIH panel revives EMF-cancer link [news].
        Science. 1998; 281: 21-22
        • Vallbona C
        • Hazlewood CF
        • Jurida G
        Response of pain to static magnetic fields in postpolio patients: a double-blind pilot study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1997;78:1200-3.
        Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1998; 79 (Comment in:): 469-470
        • Weintraub M
        Magnetic biostimulation in painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy: a novel intervention—a randomized, double-placebo crossover study.
        Am J Pain Manage. 1999; 9: 8-17
        • Hong CZ
        • Lin JC
        • Bender LF
        • Schaeffer JN
        • Meltzer RJ
        • Causin P
        Magnetic necklace: its therapeutic effectiveness on neck and shoulder pain.
        Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1982; 63: 462-466
        • Collacott EA
        • Zimmerman JT
        • White DW
        • Rindone JP
        Bipolar permanent magnets for the treatment of chronic low back pain. A pilot study.
        JAMA. 2000; 283: 1322-1325
        • Schulten K
        Magnetic field effects in chemistry and biology.
        Adv Solid State Phys. 1982; 22: 61
        • Steiner UE
        • Ulrich T
        Magnetic field effects in chemical kinetics and related phenomena.
        Chem Rev. 1989; 89: 51
        • Beall PT
        • Hazlewood CF
        • Rao PN
        Nuclear magnetic resonance patterns of intracellular water as a function of HeLa cell cycle.
        Science. 1976; 192: 904-907
        • Frankel RB
        • Liburdy RP
        Biological effects of static magnetic fields.
        in: 2nd ed. Handbook of biological effects of electromagnetic fields. : CRC Pr, Boca Raton (FL)1996: 149-183
        • Porter M
        Magnetic therapy.
        Equine Vet Data. 1997; 17: 371
        • Wikswo JP
        • Barach JP
        An estimate of the steady magnetic field strength required to influence nerve conduction.
        IEEE Trans Biomed Eng. 1980; 27: 722-723