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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.


This article reviews the promising research that suggests that electromagnetic fields alleviate multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms.

A half-million Americans have MS, a disease that attacks the insulating myelin sheath surrounding neurons and, as a consequence, compromises brain and spinal-cord nerve signals.  Symptoms include blurred vision, blindness, dizziness, numbness, muscle weakness, a lack of coordination and balance, speech impediments, fatigue, tremors, sexual dysfunction, and bowel and bladder problems. Unlike spinal cord injury (SCI), which disproportionately affects men and minorities, MS affects more women and Caucasians, especially of Northern European ancestry.

No one knows what causes MS, which has been called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Its etiology is influenced by multiple interacting genetic, environmental, nutritional, hormonal, and viral factors. It is also correlated with geophysical parameters, such as sunshine exposure and the Earth’s magnetic field, both of which are a function of location and seasonal influences.

Australian researchers recently reported that higher sun exposure during ages 6-15  were associated with a lower risk of MS. It is proposed that sun exposure and the resulting increase of Vitamin D production in the body could be protective for MS.

Magnetic Therapy:

Because every molecule, cell, organ in our body emits and is sensitive to electromagnetic fields, our biochemistry is influenced by our electromagnetic nature. As such, efforts to develop new therapies based solely on dysfunctional biochemistry without considering this nature ultimately will be limited. It is like replacing worn auto tires without aligning the wheels that caused the tires to get worn in the first place, i.e., you need to consider both.

Although there is no tissue in which our electromagnetic nature is more evident than MS-attacked nervous tissue, most therapeutic efforts have emphasized the disease’s overt physical symptoms associated with demyelination and minimized, until recently, the role of its less understood, underlying electromagnetic dynamics.

Electromagnetic fields influence many biochemical and physiological processes. Although the specific mechanisms by which such fields alleviate MS symptoms remain undefined, many possibilities exist. For example, through influencing the flow of charged ions through membrane-transversing, protein channels, electromagnetic fields may enhance signal conduction in dysfunctional neurons. In another example, magnetic fields alter our neuro- and immunochemistry, both of which are affected by MS.

Finally, electromagnetic fields influence the levels of various MS-altered hormones. In this regard, Dr. R. Sandyk (Touro College, NY) has intriguingly suggested that a key player in the disease’s etiology is the brain’s all-important, magnetically and light-sensitive pineal gland, which secretes hormones (e.g., melatonin) that affect the entire body (J. Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 1997; 3(3): pp 267-290).

The epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, and disease course can all be correlated with this gland. For example, most individuals with MS have calcified (i.e., dysfunctional) pineal glands. If MS demyelination is a secondary consequence of pineal dysfunction, Sandyk believes research efforts should focus on therapeutic interventions, such as magnetic therapy, that enhance pineal functioning. [Interestingly, quadriplegics, but not paraplegics, also have dysfunctional pineal glands (Zeitzer JM et al. J. Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2000; 85(6): pp 2189 –2196)]

Magnetic Fields:

The therapeutic interventions reviewed below use pulsed electromagnetic fields in which the electromagnet is turned on and off at a defined frequency. For example, a field that is pulsed 25 times per second has a frequency of 25 cycles/second or Hertz.

Field strength is defined by gauss. For reference, the Earth’s magnetic field is about 0.5 gauss, a refrigerator magnet is about 10 gauss, and some medical applications, such as MRIs, can exceed 10,000 gauss. However, because size counts, Earth’s small field profoundly influences life, including MS expression.

The following studies use weak electromagnetic fields, which scientists believe can initiate physiological responses that much stronger fields often cannot. These researchers have postulated a “window effect,” in which these responses may only be initiated at a unique combination of frequency, intensity, and polarity relative to the Earth’s magnetic field.

MS Studies:

1) In 1987, Dr. A. Guseo (Hungary) treated 124 patients with a pulsating (2-50 pulses/sec) electromagnetic device (50-70 gauss in strength) placed on the upper and lower spine and lower extremities (J. Bioelectricity, 1987; 6(1): pp 23-35). Twenty were enrolled in a double-blind study, a research design in which neither the patient nor doctor knew who received the active versus inactive placebo device. Changes in impairment were measured with the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS), a frequently used MS-assessment tool, before and after 15 daily treatments. Seventy percent of the treatment group showed improvement compared to only 20% in the placebo group. When the placebo group was later treated, 80% improved, as did the 104 remaining patients who were not enrolled in the double-blind trial. Main improvement areas included spasticity, pain, bladder control, and endurance.

2) In 1997, Sandyk reported on the treatment of 16 patients (no controls) with a 9-volt, battery-powered device placed on the top of the head (J. Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 1997; 3(4): pp 365-386). This device generated a pulsed (2-7 pulses/sec) electromagnetic field that was 10 million-fold weaker than the Earth’s background field. The magnetic field was administered 1-3 times a week for 10-45 minutes. Using the EDSS and additional patient-reported performance scales, improvement was observed in all subjects.

3) Also in 1997, Dr. T. Richards (University of Washington) et al. published the results of a double-blind study evaluating an electromagnetic device developed by the Enermed Corporation (www.enermed.com), Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and approved in that country for migraine and MS treatment (J. Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 1997; 3(1): pp 21-29). This watch-sized device, powered by a 3-volt battery, pulses a weak field (.05-.1 gauss) between 4-13 times per second. The specific pulsing frequencies were programmed based on the unique electromagnetic energy profile emitted by each patient.

This profile is measured by a bioelectric frequency analyzer initially developed to help cure migraines, a common MS condition (Walpole S. Int. J. Altern Comp Med, 1993 Oct: pp 23-26). This device measures the body’s electromagnetic emissions, including brainwaves (e.g., alpha, beta, theta, delta), the composition of which depends upon one’s specific mental and, in some cases, disease state. With MS, there are often gaps in alpha brainwaves (7-12 Hz), which are waves associated with conscious physical relaxation. The analyzer determines the frequencies in which these gaps occur.

Based on this determination, the Enermed device is specifically programmed to emit energy at the deficient frequencies.

In a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study, 30 subjects randomly received either a magnetically active or inactive device (photo). The device was taped to one of three acupuncture points located on the shoulder, back, or hip for 10-24 hours per day for two months.

A patient-reported performance composite scale - including bladder-control, cognitive-function, fatigue, mobility, spasticity, and vision elements - showed statistically significant improvement after treatment. In addition, treatment improved cognitive function during a language task as measured by increased alpha-wave activity.

4) This year, Dr. M. Lappin et al. published the results of a larger double-blind study evaluating the Enermed device’s effectiveness in 117 patients (Alternative Therapies, July/Aug 2003; 9: pp 38-48). Subjects were treated with an active or placebo device for four weeks, followed by a two-week washout period in which no treatment was administered. After this washout period, the initial placebo group received treatment and vice versa for the original treatment group.

The device was taped to the skin 24-hours a day over the brachial plexus, a nerve complex just below the collarbone.

Changes in impairment were assessed by a variety of measures, including scales based on the MS Quality of Life Inventory developed by the Consortium of MS Centers. Study results demonstrated statistically significant improvements in MS-related fatigue and overall quality of life, more ambiguous results for spasticity, and no effects for bladder control.


Research suggests that pulsed electromagnetic fields - although not a cure - can alleviate some MS symptoms, and, as such, enhance quality of life without the side effects associated with pharmaceutical approaches. Although the reviewed studies demonstrated positive outcomes, they had somewhat varied outcomes, which could be due to the specific device, the study design, sample size (e.g., more subjects may statistically demonstrate subtler effects), treatment duration, type of MS, medication history, etc.

Cumulatively, however, the studies suggest that electromagnetic therapy has considerable potential for expanding the healing spectrum of people with MS.

Adapted from an article appearing in Paraplegia News, December 2003 (For subscriptions, contact www.pn-magazine.com).