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Magnetic therapy for post-polio patients

A study of the use of magnetic therapy on 50 post-polio patients by Dr. Carlos Vallbona of the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation Research in Houston, has yielded some remarkable results.

The study, used multi-polar, circular pattern magnets on 29 test subjects and identical-looking fake magnets on the 21- strong control group. The test was double-blind, i.e. neither the experimenters nor the subjects knew which group had the genuine magnets. In order to prevent the subjects from checking the magnets themselves, the tests were carried out under controlled and supervised conditions.

The subjects were required to grade their pain levels on a 0-10 scale both before and after the sessions, which lasted three quarters of an hour. The 29 member test group reported a average decline in pain from 9.6 to 4.4. The 21 member control group showed a decline from 9.6 to 8.4. Thus the control group showed not merely a significant but a substantial decline in pain after use of the magnets. And the rigorous controls clearly ruled out any possibility of the placebo effect.

The sceptics were quick to point out that Dr. Valbonna and his colleague Dr. Carlton Hazlewoood had expressed tentative support for the idea based on their own experiences using  magnets to alleviate knee pains in themselves prior to the study. But then again, absent some belief that the study might be worthwhile, it would never have been undertaken in the first place.

Sceptics also suggested that the researcher might have subconsciously influenced the responses because of their prior beliefs. But given that the study was double-blind it is hard to see how this could be the case. Moreover once the subjects gave their blind responses, the actual calculation was based on basic arithmetic and it is hard to see how arithmetic could be affected by the attitude of the researchers.

Some have cited the subjectivity of pain as a limiting factor in the confidence that can be attributed to the study. But when the magnitude of the difference is so great, this explanation will hardly suffice. Perhaps this explains why William Jarvis who once dismissed magnetic therapy as quackery subsequently conceded that more research was needed.