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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

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