by Doug Campbell
Neurologists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center are testing a promising new technology that uses magnets to treat chronic pain.
By generating focused and controlled magnetic fields and applying them to afflicted areas, researchers have been able to eliminate pain and also reduce swelling and promote healing in pilot studies and several large, placebo-controlled studies.
So far, the technology has shown to be effective in alleviating chronic pain, such as joint pain, but its potential applications are numerous.
"There is nothing mystical about this," said Dr. Robert R. Holcomb, assistant professor of neurology. "This is not a cure-all. It's a new technology that uses a physical force that's been known since the beginning of history.
"While adhering to sound scientific principles, what we've done is develop a non-significant-risk technology with the potential to add benefit to the discipline of medicine."
Holcomb said the magnetic field therapy has so far been successful in a high percentage of pain cases.
In animal models as well as in patients with chronic pain, the new technology is proving to be as potent as drug therapy, but without the side effects, said Dr. Michael J. McLean, associate professor of neurology, who is collaborating with Holcomb on the study of the magnetic field technology.
"We see this technology as a sort of `drug-at-a-distance.' Whereas drugs dissolve in the whole body, these magnetic fields can be localized and targeted.
"What we're seeing is something outside the body doing what aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs do inside the body, but without the side effects," McLean said.
The technology, designed and developed by Holcomb, uses a unique, and patented, arrangement of four magnets to create a magnetic field that can be controlled and targeted to specific areas of the body. When applied, the magnetic field, in essence, blocks the transmission of pain signals.
"It impacts the membranes and cell walls," Holcomb said. "It makes the pain go away because the pain signals are stopped, not dulled or anesthetized. The magnetic field has an effect on membranes and alters the permeability of cells so that we can control and reverse swelling, which is related to stabilizing leaky membranes."
The design of Holcomb's alternating quadrapolar array technology is extremely flexible and adaptable, ranging in size from as small a bottle cap to large, electromagnetic devices, depending on need. With diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, the pain is often migratory. One knee hurts one day, the other knee hurts the next day. With this technology, the magnet arrays can be shifted to where the pain is, McLean said.
"It's a matter of tooling the technology to each problem," McLean said. "When Dr. Holcomb was developing this, he tried different arrays of magnets, and this is the one that worked. We haven't found another arrangement that is as effective.
"This really is a medical device that can enhance other treatments as well as work on its own."
When Holcomb, also an assistant professor of pediatrics, began work on the magnetic therapy technology 10 years ago, he envisioned it as a way to hopefully reduce the pain children experience during hospital stays.
"We were attempting to create a pain-free environment for kids. So much of what goes on during a hospital stay can be painful - everything from lumbar punctures to IVs to bone marrow biopsies to injections. This was seen as a way to reduce pain without the side-effects of drugs and to reduce the stress and trauma that children go through," Holcomb said.
"This is not alternative medicine. It's medicine. Even for people with severe pain, this is proving successful. We've treated more than 5,000 patients since we began studying this 10 years ago. This is an emerging medical technology with a strong scientific base."
Posted 11/17/97 at 10:00 a.m.