The magnetic field that surrounds the Earth is a powerful force. Birds use it to navigate, and even some bacteria orient themselves using this magnetic pull. Now, magnetism has become a means for many people to seek relief for nagging pain. It’s big business, with magnetic devices chalking up an estimated $500 million in annual sales in the United States and more than $5 billion globally. Foot-care biggies like Dr. Scholls and Florsheim sell magnetic insoles that promise to relieve those aching and tired feet.
Magnetic Insoles: Their Effect on Feet
Depending on the magnetic source, a magnetic field can be applied in an on-and-off fashion (pulsed magnet) or continuously (static magnet). Insoles are typically the static variety, courtesy of a magnetic foil pad.
Claims for the medical benefits wrought by magnetic insoles include increased blood flow and oxygen levels to the magnetized area, aligning of cells in the magnetic field, revved-up nerve activity, and even a change in the acidity of the magnetized body fluids.
But without scientific evidence, most people who buy magnetic insoles rely on, or can be swayed by, the testimonials and claims offered by companies who profit from increased sales.
Certainly, some folks do benefit from walking about on magnetic insoles. For some people, the effect may be all in their head. That’s not a put-down — it’s known as the placebo effect. Believing that atreatment is going to work can indeed stimulate real changes in the body that reduce pain. As long as the treatment does not cause harm, the resulting pain relief is a good thing.
But is there any validity to the claim of pain relief from the use of magnetic insoles?
Magnetic Insoles: Science to the Rescue
Scientific studies have been done to examine the influence of magnetic insoles on foot pain and fatigue. But all studies are not equal. A poorly designed study on any topic will produce dubious data. Fortunately, a number of studies examining magnetic insoles have utilized the “gold standard” randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design, in which participants are randomly allocated to receive the real or dummy treatment, with neither participants or study staff knowing which is which. This removes all bias from the results. And, when the numbers of participants are sufficiently high, statistical analyses can be done to put some real oomph behind the results. Since one of the positive studies on magnetic insoles was the gold standard variety, the evidence is more compelling.
Here’s help to figure out exactly what type of foot condition can be helped by magnetic insoles and when to consider them.
The Pros of Magnetic Insoles
“There seems to be benefit for some conditions with magnetic insoles, namely with neuropathic pain. In the condition of peripheral neuropathy [where numbness, tingling, or burning sensations result from nerve trauma, and which is a common spin-off of diabetes] magnetic insoles have been shown to be effective in decreasing pain,” says Jane Anderson, DPM, a podiatric physician and surgeon and past president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists.
“There is no one single correct treatment for the numerous conditions associated with foot pain. For many conditions, however, a good supportive shoe and insole can be a good first step,” says Dr. Anderson, adding, if going the insole route, take care to make sure that the insole fits comfortably.
The Cons of Magnetic Insoles
“Foot pain, in most cases, is not normal. Individuals with pain should be evaluated by a podiatrist to determine the appropriate diagnosis and treatment options for foot health. A visit to a podiatrist should be first on the list, prior to a trip to the local drugstore or Internet site to purchase insoles,” explains Anderson.
And specifically in the case of heel pain that is caused by a condition called plantar fasciitis, in which connective tissue in the foot becomes inflamed, Anderson points out, “Studies have indicated that magnetic insoles have no advantage over similar, non-magnetized insoles.”
Finally, warns Anderson, “Some of the magnetic insoles I have seen have sharp edges or lumps. Any designed like that should be avoided, especially in patients with diabetes or vascular disease.”
The Bottom Line
Magnetic insoles are not for everybody. Depending on the foot ailment, they may provide relief (which may be real or due to the placebo effect); for others they could be an ineffective waste of money and hope.