Occasionally, I see commercials on TV for various products made with magnets or copper that make various claims of medicinal benefit.

There have been few studies on the effects of magnets and copper on various conditions. A rigorous study of 70 rheumatoid arthritis patients found no difference between copper or magnetic bracelets and placebo bracelets.

So, why are copper products so popular?

Civilizations all over the world have used copper as medicine for thousands of years. Between 4000 and 2300 BC, the Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia in the Middle East, treated a variety of ailments with pulverized malachite, which contains copper. The ancient Egyptians also used malachite to prevent and cure eye infections and later to treat wounds after operations.

A manuscript called the Smith papyrus, dating from around 2500 BC, records the use of copper salts as sterilizers for drinking water and for dressing wounds. The Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures soaked gauze in copper sulfate to treat people that had undergone trepanation, a procedure in which holes were drilled in the skull.

In 1939, German physician Werner Hangarter observed that Finnish copper miners suffered less from arthritis than the general population. He later explored the use of a copper and salicylate preparation called Permalon to treat RA. He found that IV injections of Permalon alleviated fever, pain and decreased the symptoms of RA. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in aspirin and the results could be attributed to it rather than the copper.

Today, copper is used to make some intrauterine devices, a form of long-term birth control. The copper produces inflammation in the uterus to create an environment that's harmful to sperm to prevent their fertilization of the egg and implantation in the uterus. Copper treatments are used by some practitioners of alternative medicine and have some supporting studies.

One previous trial has been reported on the use of magnet therapy for RA, in which 64 participants wore magnets on the knee for a period of one week. They also found that magnets had no demonstrable effect on pain, inflammation or physical functioning, beyond that of the placebo.

In this new study, scientists studied a group of 70 patients with RA between the ages of 33 and 79. They were randomly divided into four groups who got either a standard magnetic wrist strap, a weak magnetic wrist strap, a demagnetized wrist strap or a copper bracelet. None of the participants, researchers or care providers knew who was in which group. After five weeks, the scientists measured joint pain, swelling, inflammation, plasma viscosity, physical function and medicine use. They found no statistically significant differences between the four devices.

The bottom line is magnets and copper bracelets have no measurable therapeutic effect on symptoms of RA in the people studied. However, these products are safe and relatively inexpensive, so the wearer may perceive a benefit because of a placebo effect. Based on this research though, ignore the ads on late-night TV and save your money.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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