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Fields, Alternative Medicine, and Physics

In 1996 the American Physical Society, responding to a request from the National Research Council, was asked to examine the potential health hazards of power lines. One of the concerns was that electromagnetic background fields of 2 milligauss might cause cancer (for comparison the earth’s magnetic field is 500 milligauss and fields generated by human physiological processes are hundreds of thousands of times less than 2 milligauss). Monitors of outdoor exposure for children to wear were marketed to parents. “Some city regulations sought to constrain B fields to less than 2 milligauss”. The report, which was a comprehensive study of the alleged dangers, included both molecular and epidemiologic studies and found that no adverse health effects could be attributed to these low fields.

One of the conclusions emphasized that physical calculations rule out carcinogenic effects because at physiological temperatures thermal noise fields in human cells are larger than the background fields from power lines.1, 2 Thus the political agenda, concerned with fear of carcinogenic mechanisms arising from low level magnetic fields, lost credibility. However, about 10 years later claims for health effects from mattress pads equipped with small magnets were marketed. A study of this was funded by National Institute of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and claims for their benefits were published in alternative medicine journals.3

Some of the rationale for the claims were ludicrous. I attended one sales pitch which claimed their mattress magnets were better because they incorporated only North Poles. About  the same time, small 300 gauss magnets, began to appear on the shelves of drug stores. In 2007 a lawsuit brought by the National Council against Health Fraud against advertisers of these products was successfully settled. I was one of the persons who agreed to appear as an expert witness if needed. The Federal Trade Commission also threatened to prosecute purveyors who claimed healthful benefits for these products.

Amazingly, in the last few years the health and medical and nursing communities in their ‘integrated medicine’ outreach are now marketing the unsubstantiated claims that healing fields of 2 milligauss are emitted from the hands of practitioners.4,5 This belief in distance healing, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, and Qiqong cobble the language of physics with the language of physiology, misleading the patient. For example, in Therapeutic Touch the protocol requires that a therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” allegedly “tuning” a purported “aura” of biomagnetic energy that extends above the patient’s body. This is thought to somehow help heal the patient. (Curiously, the rubrics never define what may happen if the practitioner is inept.) Although this is less than one percent of the strength of Earth’s magnetic field, corresponding to billions of times less energy than the energy your eye receives when viewing even the brightest star in the night sky, and is billions of times smaller than that needed to affect biochemistry, the web sites of prominent clinics nevertheless market the claims6 This belief has been published in the peer reviewed medical literature.7 Silence on this issue by the major scientific societies is a serious compromise of the scientific endeavors of those of us who work at the frontier of physics, medicine and biology.

The terms, energy and field, are used by alternative medicine practitioners, and integrative medicine physicians without any understanding of their meaning — their on-line and public lectures impart the pretense that fields are unknown philosophical constructs. Invited speakers at medical meetings at major academic institutions philosophize relationships between phenomena of many different magnitudes and sources, such as dark matter and biochemistry. The laws of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism are responsible for the biochemical bonding of molecules. Scientists understand that the discovery of dark matter is associated with the gravitational forces in our universe. No formulation of the properties of dark matter could have any observable effects between individual molecules in a cell.

What follows is a tutorial on fields:

Transmission of a force when objects are not in contact is represented by a set of vectors defined at all points in space which enumerate the direction and magnitude of the force. This set of vectors constitutes the field. There are four fundamental forces: gravitational, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear. Other fundamental forces have been looked for and not found. Scientists cannot rule out the possibility that science may one day find a new force field, but should such a discovery occur it will be through using the tools and methodology of science. Theorists understand that the strength of such a force must be much less than our weakest known force.

We live in a gravitational field which causes an object near the surface of the earth to fall with acceleration such that its velocity increases each sec by 32 feet per sec. Further out from our planet this number is less. Place signs with these numbers all over space and you have a picture of the field and its associated ‘action at a distance’ force. Knowing these numbers allows us to build rockets and satellites and explore outer space.

Similarly we know the numbers for electromagnetic fields. This allows us to build MRI machines. Ultrasonic imaging arises from us knowing the numbers at the level of cells to image the densities in tissues. We are constantly bathed in electromagnetic fields from communication devices.

Studies of equations for these forces and the enumeration of the strength of their fields underlie our current technology. When energy fields are used as a medium for conveying information, scientists ask and answer the following key questions: How large is the signal? What is the transmitter located in the source, and what and where is the receiver? How can the device be tuned and detuned? Lastly, how can one replicate this by a device to be used for medical intervention?

The alleged source of TT’s purported biomagnetic field is the practitioner, and the alleged receiver is the patient. Beyond this, TT practitioners fail to give detailed and plausible answers to the key questions above. TT practitioners’ adoption of the scientific term “biomagnetic” field, without an equation to describe the field and without any grounding in known physics and biochemistry, conveys the impression of scientific respectability to claims that have no scientific basis. Its claims are anecdotal and no measurements such as blood work or respiratory function are made.

I’m sure your ENT or GP would never suggest visits to a TT practitioner to cure a hearing loss. Practitioners of alternative medicine never recommend it as an  intervention for a condition that  has an easily measurable physiological response. The clinical trials using TT associated with the 1.8 million dollar NIH grant, which were to measure the health of women with cervical cancer, were completed in 2006 and 20078 but a recent search using Clinical Trials .gov data base yields no reported results. Curiously, expert scientific opinion, and inventions using fields are welcomed by the evidence-based medical community but rejected by the integrative medicine community when this knowledge contradicts belief systems purported to be medically healing.

Notes

  1. David Hafemeister, “Resource Letter BELFEF-1: Biological effects of low-frequency electromagnetic fields,” American Journal of Physics 64(8), 974-981 (1996).
  2. Robert K. Adair, “Constraints on biological effects of weak extremely-low-frequency electromagnetic fields,” Physical Review A43(2), 1039-1048 (1991).
  3. Static Magnetic Fields for Treatment of Fibromyalgia: A Randomized Controlled Trial
    Alan P. Alfano, Ann Gill Taylor, Pamela A. Foresman, Philomena R. Dunkl, Geneviève G. McConnell, Mark R. Conaway, George T. Gillies. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. February 2001, 7(1): 53-64. doi:10.1089/107555301300004538.
  4. A report detailing the current claims, authored by myself and Derek Araujo, was issued by the Center for Inquiry, on September 28, 2009.
  5. “Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.” Scripps Institute website: http://www.scripps.org/services/integrative-medicine/services
  6. Affiliated with Harvard Medical Center is Brigham Hospital’s Osher Center. Course offerings have featured Reiki: “During this class you will receive a reiki level one attunement. This attunement enables you to become a channel for this universal healing energy which will be with you for your lifetime. From this point on you will be a reiki practitioner. With level one reiki you will be able to do healing on yourself, friends, family and pets.” See http://hms.harvard.edu/hms/home.asp; see also http://www.brighamandwomens.org/medicine/oshercenter/
  7. Journal of Orthopaedic Research 26(11), 1541-1546 (2008).
  8. Clinicaltrials.gov NCT 00065091

About the author:

EUGENIE VORBURGER MIELCZAREK is Emeritus Professor of Physics at George Mason. Her experimental researches in materials science, chemical physics and biological physics have been published in The Physical Review, the Journal of Chemical Physics and the Biology of Metals. She has been a visiting scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and a visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award at George Mason University. She has advised National Public Radio, judged the U. S. Steel-American Institute of Physics prize for science journalism, and written book reviews for Physics Today. She was the primary editor of Key Papers in Biological Physics. She is the author of a popular science book, Iron, Nature’s Universal Element: Why People Need Iron & Animals Make Magnets. Her most recent article was a review of research frontiers linking Physics and Biology. In May 2009 she was honored by the Washington Academy of Sciences for ‘Distinguished Research in Biological Physics’.

Parts of this blog post also appeared in the April 2010 Newsletter of the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society

Posted in: Basic Science

Leave a Comment (21) ↓

21 thoughts on “Fields, Alternative Medicine, and Physics

  1. TimonT says:

    Thanks for the very interesting post, Eugenie. I always wish I could look in into the minds of these people to see how they come up with these weird ideas.

    Just one very minor correction. In the sentence: “Curiously, the rubrics never define what may happen if the practitioner is inept.”, I suspect you meant to use the word “rubes”, not “rubrics”.

  2. DevoutCatalyst says:

    “…Some of the rationale for the claims were ludicrous. I attended one sales pitch which claimed their mattress magnets were better because they incorporated only North Poles…”

    What, you don’t believe in Santa Claus?

  3. BillyJoe says:

    Actually magnetic monopoles do exist. ;)

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/40302

  4. windriven says:

    “Similarly we know the numbers for electromagnetic fields. This allows us to build MRI machines. Ultrasonic imaging arises from us knowing the numbers at the level of cells to image the densities in tissues. ”

    This construct might leave non-technical readers with the impression that ultrasonic imaging is based on electromagnetic fields. It isn’t. Ultrasonic imaging applies mechanical energy in the form of high frequency vibrations and measures the time delay and intensity of “echoes” to map differences in tissue densities.

  5. Eugenie Mielczarek says:

    Timon — thanks for reading, sarcasm is fun but I find it not in the best interest of making a serious point.

    Billy Joe, monopoles not in mattress pads!– I’ll leave it to you to write the popular exposition and thanks for the link.

    Winddriven, Yes I considered giving a more technical explaination. For many years I conducted experimental research into the properties of metals using ultrasonics. A first principles calculation of elastic properties involves setting the correct interatomic potentials and using them in the appropriate quantum mechanical methodology, energy band theory. Elastic forces are thus calculated from first principles. I just cut to the chase and perhaps should have not opted for the quick answer. I hope my sentence doesn’t haunt me by becoming an urban legend.

    All -I never meant for this blog to become a tutorial in theoretical physics. I’ll warn my colleagues be prepared for a glut of new majors.

  6. squirrelelite says:

    Welcome to SBM, Professor Mielczarek!

    Since I got my BS in physics and later earned an MS in nuclear effects, I am especially interested in the interplay of physical forces like electricity and magnetism, which I know a little about, and the biology of living organisms, which I am less familiar with.

    I also find it irritating that the advocates for so many versions of alternative medicine are happy to use terms like energy and field to make their claims sound scientific, but they never explain how these are measured or provide a repeatable demonstration of how they affect ordinary matter.

    I remember reading in Physical Review Letters in 1989 about an experiment which seemed to show evidence of a fifth and possibly even a sixth force (of gravity), but the results weren’t strong enough to distinguish from anomalies in the density of the local geology.

    http://prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v62/i9/p985_1

  7. Thanks for the article Dr. Mielczarek. I have to admit that I’m going to have to come back and work my way through your explanation a bit more slowly to “get it”. But I’ve always been interested in the power lines concerns, so I’m going to make the effort.

    In my first pass I notice this comment.

    “I’m sure your ENT or GP would never suggest visits to a TT practitioner to cure a hearing loss. Practitioners of alternative medicine never recommend it as an intervention for a condition that has an easily measurable physiological response.”

    Just a anedote (not a criticism) that this phrase brought to mind. I belong to a news groups for parent of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is not unusual to see a post with the header “Jessica’s (insert child’s name) Cured!”. After awhile you know what to expect. Parents have taken their child with diagnosed hearing loss (sometimes even moderate or severe loss) to a new audiologist and after a detailed hearing test the audiologist pronounces that the child has normal hearing.

    The seasoned parents understand that this is not a point that they should wonder what miracle occurred, but it is the point where they should look for a new audiologist. Some audiologists are not experienced or meticulous enough to understand how well a child with hearing loss observes “tells” from the audiologist and parents.

    What is the lesson to this story (read ramble). If you ever read a paper that does show improved hearing from a non-plausible treatment, first question the audiology.

  8. Zach says:

    I can see it now:

    “how exactly do you get only north poles to use in your bed?”

    “well, sir, it’s a proprietary process i cannot say much beyond the fact that through an innovative and patent pending technique we cut the north poles off magnets to put in these beds, leaving only the south poles behind that we sell to people in the southern hemisphere where the south poles actually work better.”

  9. windriven says:

    I generally have little patience with or sympathy for adults who buy in to reiki, mega-vitamin therapy, chiropractic, and other nonsense. Caveat emptor. But it is unspeakably irresponsible, dare I say criminally fraudulent, for educational institutions and medical centers to offer ridiculous and unscientific medical curricula and treatment. How is the average adult whose expertise may be in plumbing or English literature or programming be expected to identify sham therapies when premier institutions treat those same sham therapies as if they had some basis in reality?

  10. Eugenie Mielczarek says:

    Hi Squirrelite, Michelle, Zach, windriven, Thanks for the useful, informative, humorous and heartwarming replies. Good timing! I had a frustrating day trying to move this matter into some more professional exposure to this matter. Jean Mielczarek 6PM

  11. Harriet Hall says:

    Just wondering, how do you pronounce Mielczarek?

  12. overshoot says:

    You have no idea of the relief I felt when I realized that the physics exposition (however simplified) was actually offered by a physicist.

    One point on the power-line issue, though: unlike the geomagnetic field, power-line fields are changing fast enough to induce microcurrents in conductors such as salt water (notably, human tissues.) I’ve worked for developers of medical devices based on this effect and have no reason to doubt that their research from in vitro studies of effects on cell cultures to full-up double-blinded clinical trials are sound.

    Now, whether the currents from power lines are physiologically significant is quite another matter, and the people I worked with (remember, they had a bit of a bias!) were quite dubious.

  13. JMB says:

    Thank you for your post. Your arguments are likely to be repeated in hospital clinical conferences when such subjects come up. It is great to have the arguments framed by a physicist rather than by those of us who are only amateur physicists.

  14. weing says:

    “Just wondering, how do you pronounce Mielczarek?”

    I’m not sure you could. The “cz” sound doesn’t really exist in English. The closest sound that I’ve heard in English is how some people pronounce the “t” in tree.

  15. phayes says:

    “Place signs with these numbers all over space and you have a picture of the field and its associated ‘action at a distance’ force. ”

    There’s a fascinating article on some of the conceptual and mathematical issues implicit in / alluded to in that statement here:

    http://www.mathpages.com/home/kmath613/kmath613.htm

  16. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I knew a guy whose name was spelled “Przybylski” and pronounced “Shabilski”. I always found that to be awesome, to the point that 15 years after I last spoke with him, I can still spell it.

  17. weing says:

    I guess, “Shabilski” is close enough for government work but it will remain a shibboleth.

  18. Ooh, that’s almost as awesome as pronouncing Siobhan, “Shevonne.”

  19. Pareidolius says:

    I’ll swing wide and propose Meeyel-charreck. How’d I do?

  20. Calli Arcale says:

    Practitioners of alternative medicine never recommend it as an intervention for a condition that has an easily measurable physiological response.

    Never underestimate the ambition of alternative medicine practitioners. The vast majority rather conveniently constrain themselves to the unquantifiable, and if at all possible, treating the “worried well”. I think many of them do it unintentionally — they work in the unquantifiable simply because that is where they’ve seen their “therapies” work. (Yet because they are closed-minded, they tend not to realize how suspicious it is that their stuff only works when it can’t be measured.)

    All the same, every now and again, you’ll hear of an ambitious quack who will claim to treat quantifiable things. What’s even more amazing is that most of them get away with it! People have an astonishing ability to rationalize failures. The patient’s cancer didn’t go away, because they didn’t believe. The infection was too far along. It didn’t work for me, but I know it worked for my cousin Glenda. It cured my problem, but then I got another one. Or, one of the most insidious, it would have worked if only the patient had stayed away from those nasty doctors and their medicine.

    And those who seek therapy and see it fail but *don’t* rationalize it away? Some don’t talk because they are dead, or too tired to fight. Families often either don’t know about the alt med that their late family member was trying, or don’t realize the extent of it, or are disinterested in fighting because they are in pain and would rather just get on with life. And there is an embarrassment factor too. People don’t like to admit they were duped, a fact which many con artists exploit, and which shields even the unwitting quacks.

    Great article, though. The physics angle is often overlooked; the medical researchers tell us they could find no effect, but it’s nice to be reminded how absurd the physics make it all — like homeopathy, it is not only implausible, but would require rewriting the books on physics and chemistry.

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