Magnetic Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

What Research Says About Its Effectivness

patient considering magnet therapy for MS knee pain
PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

The use of magnetic therapy for the symptoms of multiple sclerosis has been evaluated in a few studies. There is some evidence that transcranial magnetic stimulation (but not magnets alone) may be beneficial for tingling pain, memory problems, and depression, but other studies looking at fatigue and quality of life show less promise.

It's important to note upfront that magnetic therapy is meant to be an adjunct or additional option to help control symptoms. If you try it, it should only be used along with conventional medical treatment designed to control the challenging symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

How Magnet Therapy Works

Magnetic therapy involves the use of magnets (or electromagnetic fields) to stimulate healing or reduce pain. It has been used for thousands of years for various purposes. With multiple sclerosis, it has been tried with the theory that it may affect myelination, demyelination, and brain function, but some types of magnetic therapy hold much more promise than others.

In general, magnetic therapy can be broken down into main types:

  • Magnets alone: There are currently a plethora of products available with magnets (e.g. bracelets, necklaces, mattresses, shoe inserts, and even bandages). Despite claims that range from inflammation reduction to improvement in circulation, there is little scientific evidence that they work. If these do reduce symptoms such as pain, it's likely a placebo effect.
  • Electromagnetic fields (EMF): Electrically charged magnetic fields hold much more promise as a potential adjunct in healing and symptom relief. These fields may be static, variable, or pulsed (PEMF).

With multiple sclerosis, the method most often used is transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which involves the use of high- or low-intensity electromagnetic pulses applied to the surface of the brain.

Evidence for Use in MS

Anecdotal reports alluding to the effectiveness of magnetic therapy in multiple sclerosis began being reported in the 1990s, when a few patients experienced dramatic improvements in their symptoms with the therapy. This included findings such as restored motor function and resolved sleep paralysis, as well as objective changes such as the normalization of visual and auditory brainstem evoked potentials.

But those who were skeptical of the treatment argued that the placebo effect may play a large role in these improvements.

Since then, a number of studies have looked at various magnetic therapies and how they may affect the underlying processes in multiple sclerosis, as well as their possible benefit with particular symptoms of the disease. A few controlled trials used sham EMF as a placebo.

Effect on Myelination/Demyelination

Some researchers believe that pulsed electromagnetic fields (EMFs) may have neuroprotective effects in the brain and spinal cord. In a 2012 study, researchers induced demyelination by chemical means in rats. They found that the EMF appeared to have two effects:

  • It increased the proliferation and migration of neural stem cells.
  • It enhanced the repair of myelin that had been damaged via chemical demyelination.

It's unknown whether or not this experimental model of demyelination and effect of EMFs in rats could be translated to humans, but the study does suggest a mechanism by which this therapy may help.

Effect on Paresthesias

Paresthesias, or the numbness and tingling that is common with multiple sclerosis (and when painful is referred to as dysesthesia), are challenging to treat. In a 2016 study, researchers conducted a trial in which one group of people with MS were treated with pulsing magnetic fields and a control group was exposed to a magnetically inactive field.

They found that the group exposed to the active pulsed field had a significant reduction in paresthesias compared to the control group when measured 30 days and 60 days after the initiation of treatment. It was uncertain whether there were any long-term effects one way or the other.

Effect on Fatigue

While earlier research had suggested that magnetic fields may have a very mild effect on MS-related fatigue and quality of life, a 2012 study found that exposure to a low-frequency magnetic field resulted in no statistically significant improvement in fatigue when compared to a sham procedure.

Effect on Memory/Cognitive Function

Cognitive impairments affect roughly half of people with multiple sclerosis and can be very frustrating. Symptoms can include problems with short-term memory, information processing, concentration, and more.

Earlier studies had found that memory concerns in people with MS are associated with altered "connectivity" (how the different parts of the brain interact with each other), and it was hypothesized that magnetic field therapy may provide some benefit.

A 2017 study used rTMS to stimulate brain activity. They, in fact, found that the treatment resulted in improvements in brain activity, connectivity, and working memory among people with MS.

While the treatment appeared to make a difference among those with MS, it did not appear to have any effect on healthy control subjects given the same treatment.

Effect on Depression

Depression is complex with multiple sclerosis and has many potential causes, including the use of medications such as Avonex (interferon beta-1a) and Betaseron (interferon beta-1b).

When used to stimulate a part of the brain involved in depression, a 2010 study found that PEMF was more effective than a sham procedure, resolving depression in 14 percent versus 5 percent of people. When people in the sham group were allowed to switch over into the PEMF group, the remission rate rose to 30 percent.

Studies on the whole, however, have been mixed. A 2018 study published in n JAMA Psychiatry tested 160 veterans, with one group receiving repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the left prefrontal region and the other receiving a sham treatment. After up to 30 sessions, there was no difference in the depression remission rate between the two groups.

While the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation for MS-related depression hasn't been studied specifically, the therapy is FDA approved for depression that isn't responding to antidepressants.

Side Effects

As with any medical treatment, the application of electromagnetic fields has potential side effects. These are uncommon and usually mild, and may include:

  • Scalp discomfort (with transcranial stimulation)
  • Tingling or muscle twitches (spasms) of the face or neck
  • Nausea

Though seldom reported, electromagnetic fields such as rTMS have the potential to induce seizures and may trigger mania in people who have bipolar disorder. There is also a very low risk of hearing loss if ear protection is not used.

There are no known long-term effects at this time.

Contraindications

Women who are pregnant or could be pregnant should not have electromagnetic therapies.

Magnetic stimulation should not be used by people who have any metal in their bodies such as pacemakers, defibrillators, aneurysm clips, implantable pain pumps, insulin pumps, vagus nerve stimulators, and deep brain stimulators.

The therapy should also be avoided by anyone who may have other metal in their bodies such as shrapnel or bullet fragments. In addition, it should not be used anywhere near an MRI machine.

Deciding on Treatment

There are both potential benefits and risks associated with the use of magnetic therapy for multiple sclerosis, and each individual with MS will need to weigh these with respect to their own situation.

Magnetic Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis
  Potential Benefits Potential Risks
Symptoms Possible improvement in paresthesias, memory and other cognitive concerns, and depression Scalp discomfort; slight risk of seizures or changes in mental health
Underlying Pathology Potential protection against or repair of demyelination Unknown long-term effects on brain tissues
Treatment Possible adjunct option when combined with other therapy If used as a substitute for conventional care, could delay effective treatments (and potentially have serious consequences)

What to Expect

If you go for transcranial magnetic stimulation, you will be seen as an outpatient. The procedure begins with you sitting in a comfortable, reclined chair; earplugs are provided.

A technician will apply the electromagnetic coil to your scalp over the region of your brain that is to be treated, and you will both hear and feel a clicking sound as the device is calibrated and each time the therapy is pulsed. The session will last for around 20 to 40 minutes. When the procedure is finished, you will be able to leave and drive home.

Most often, the procedure is scheduled Monday through Friday for a duration of four weeks to six weeks.

Availability and Cost

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is available at a number of major medical centers including the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic, University of California-San Diego, and many more.

The procedure can be costly and is not a covered benefit under many insurance plans.

Other Conditions Treated with Magnet Therapy

Magnetic therapy has been studied for its possible effect on a number of medical conditions. Some of these include:

  • Fracture healing: There is evidence that pulsed electromagnetic fields may hasten wound healing in slow-healing fractures.
  • Migraine headaches: There are several studies that have begun to evaluate magnetic therapy for migraine headaches.
  • Alzheimer's disease: A few small studies have looked at transcranial magnetic stimulation for Alzheimer's disease and suggest it may have some benefit on cognitive function.
  • Other forms of dementia
  • Chronic pain: There is some evidence that transcranial magnetic stimulation may help with chronic pain, including the difficult to treat neuropathic pain found in some people with chronic pelvic pain and other pain syndromes.
  • Arthritis
  • Epilepsy
  • Parkinson's disease

Transcranial magnetic stimulation has also been studied for mental health conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia.

While there have been claims that magnetic therapy can help with conditions such as cancer or heart disease, there is little evidence to support these claims at this time.

A Word From Verywell

Magnetic stimulation offers some potential benefits for people with multiple sclerosis who are coping with paresthesias, cognitive dysfunction, or depression, though the research is still very young. It's also unknown whether the procedure has any long-term effects (either positive or negative).

Everyone is different and the symptoms of MS can vary significantly from one person to the next. Likewise, the therapies that work for one person may or may not work for another. Taking the time to explore all of your options is a great step toward finding the right treatments to live your best life with MS.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources