September 15, 2000 By Lisa Brunette

Do magnets really reduce severe nerve pain?

Millions of people seem to think so; the worldwide market for magnetic devices to treat pain is estimated to exceed more than $1 billion. But, until very recently, there was little solid scientific evidence to prove their value in treating pain.

Among a host of studies testing new ways to treat nerve pain, a team of researchers at the UW Medical School is testing magnetic footpads for treatment of painful diabetic neuropathy, one of the most common complications of diabetes mellitus. Neuropathy, which produces tingling, burning pain and sometimes persistent numbness as well, develops in more than 50 percent of patients who have had diabetes for more than 15 years. It is a progressive, sometimes disabling condition for which conventional drug therapy is generally not effective.

“Two recent studies have suggested that magnetic footpads might be very effective for some people with severe diabetic neuropathy,” says Miroslav Backonja, associate professor of neurology and principal investigator of the study.

“Magnetic treatments are growing in popularity, and we want to take an open-minded, scientific approach in testing whether those benefits stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

The UW study is “double-blind” and randomized, which means that those enrolled are randomly assigned to receive either the magnetic footpad or a dummy (placebo) pad and neither the patient nor the physician knows which the patient has. This is done to reduce the chance that a patient’s expectation of improvement (the placebo effect) will produce a reduction in pain. Those in the study will wear a footpad continuously for four months.

In addition to the magnet study, Backonja and associates are testing several oral medications for painful diabetic neuropathy. Each has been specifically developed to treat various kinds of pain caused by nerve damage.

Backonja is also studying several new forms of treatment for post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), the pain that often lingers after patients develop shingles (herpes zoster), an acute viral inflammation that attacks certain nerves. PHN can have a devastating effect on elderly people, who are at higher risk for shingles than younger people are. Sometimes, says Backonja, the pain lingers for a long time and can so debilitate elderly patients that they become hypersensitive to even wearing clothing.

In addition to several oral medications, Backonja and his associates are testing the lidocaine patch, approved by the FDA in 1999 for PHN. Lidocaine, a local anesthetic which has typically been applied directly to the skin, was approved for PHN in patch form in 1999. While it has already proven helpful for patients who become hypersensitive from PHN, the research is aimed at helping those with other forms of nerve pain due to PHN.

Backonja says many new pain relief treatments are coming out for research study and that the number of options for people with chronic pain is expanding quickly.

“No one should fear pain treatment,” he notes. “Back pain, headaches, and belly pain are among the most common reasons patients visit their doctors. We have many choices we can use with good results.”

Those interested in Backonja’s pain studies at the UW should contact Robin Elbe, (608) 265-6544.

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