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Bracelets and Arthritis – Decoration or Cure?

by on 2013/10/09

Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful, debilitating condition that affects up to 1% of the world’s population. With no known cure, only the symptoms are treated and, with the condition being known since antiquity, many alternative therapies are touted to relieve the suffering of those affected. Recent news articles have focused on two of these – magnetic bracelets and copper bracelets – reporting them to be “useless”, so here we look at the research behind these articles.

The study:

Richmond et al. report in PLoS ONE a study of 70 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. A randomised double-blind trial, monitored by patient pain reporting and blood tests, showed no statistically significant changes when patients wore copper bracelets or bracelets with varying magneticities. Any therapeutic benefits were no more than placebo effects.

Stewart J. Richmond, Shalmini Gunadasa, Martin Bland, & Hugh MacPherson (2013). Copper Bracelets and Magnetic Wrist Straps for Rheumatoid Arthritis – Analgesic and Anti-Inflammatory Effects: A Randomised Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Crossover Trial. PLoS ONE 8(9): e71529. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071529

The press:

Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph reported the study faithfully, with little spin and allowing the authors of the study to provide further information. This is clearly an emotive area, as evidenced by the reader comments, and the journalists should be congratulated on their accurate reporting of the study.

The implications:

Bracelets such as those examined in the study are a hugely profitable industry with a wealth of anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness (again evident in the user comments on the news articles). The authors of the study rationalise beliefs in bracelets as follows:

“People normally begin wearing them during a flare up period and then as their symptoms subside naturally over time they confuse this with a therapeutic effect.”

Their message to sufferers is clear: whilst wearing copper and magnetic bracelets may seem to attenuate painful symptoms, this is a placebo effect only, and they are no substitute for genuine medical treatments. Early diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is vital to managing it and avoiding long-term joint damage: consulting your GP is a much better investment than relying on ultimately decorative bracelets.

2 Comments
  1. Tim Smith permalink

    So how do you explain the similar dog collars? I accept that placebo effect will work for humans as they will have the rational behind them to make the belief happen, but a dog? I know people who have had dogs with the condition and used a magnetic collar, they claim that the dog was seen to pick up and do things it hadn’t been doing since the condition came upon them. Still it’s only an observation without any real facts behind it.

  2. Well we don’t really have any reliable data on the effectiveness of dog collars for treating arthritis – as far as I can tell it is all anecdotal evidence – but I’d love to see a scientific study on the matter. The apparent therapeutic effect in dogs may be further examples of coincidental improvement, which the study mentions as a reason for human belief in these bracelets.

    In addition, you might be interested to read some discussion on placebo effects for animals here:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/is-there-a-placebo-effect-for-animals/

    Interestingly, the placebo effect may even extend beyond our own body; we may project a placebo effect onto loved ones that we are caring for, seeing benefits that are not really occurring because we really want our loved ones to improve. So the placebo effect may extend to us thinking that our beloved pets are improving because they are wearing collars, when in fact they are not. Another great blog post discusses it and links to a study:

    http://skeptvet.com/Blog/2012/11/caregiver-placebo-effects-new-study-shows-that-owners-and-vets-often-believe-an-ineffective-therapy-is-working-when-it-isnt/

    I love dogs, and would love to see simple treatments like this work, but unfortunately there is just no evidence for them doing so. Just like humans, early diagnosis and prescription of proven, effective medicines is the best treatment.

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