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The Many Health Benefits of Pulsed Magnetic Field (PEMF) Devices

Story at-a-glance -

  • Therapeutic pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMFs) emulate and amplify natural processes in the body, and work synergistically with body functions to speed healing, reduce pain and boost health
  • PEMFs are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the therapeutic band is a rather narrow segment of fields similar to the Schumann resonance found in the Earth’s ionosphere
  • Pain is perhaps the No. 1 ailment for which people use PEMF, and treating chronic low back pain with PEMF has a very high success rate
  • PEMFs have a natural, almost automatic, painkilling effect; they also increase circulation, reduce inflammation and edema, improve ATP production and utilization, and stimulate RNA and DNA
  • Most of the frequencies used therapeutically range between 1 and 1,000 hertz

By Dr. Mercola

While I’ve written a lot about the dangers of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), some EMFs do have health benefits. In this interview, Dr. William Pawluk discusses the use of pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF), which is also the topic of his book, “Power Tools for Health: How Pulsed Magnetic Fields (PEMFs) Help You.” I have a couple of PEMF devices myself and use them almost daily. Having studied PEMF therapy for three decades, Pawluk is one of the most knowledgeable physicians I know in this field.

Harmful EMFs Versus Beneficial PEMFs

So, how is it that PEMF can be beneficial if EMFs are so harmful? Pawluk explains:

“In a way, all [EMFs] are PEMFs. But when we talk about PEMFs, we're really talking about PEMFs for therapeutic purposes. Environmental EMFs are, in many ways, beyond our control. They're not necessarily bad for us, but the [harmful] EMFs we're talking about are man-made, synthetic, artificial, never-known-to-nature EMFs. That's one problem. The other problem is that they are ubiquitous. [EMFs are] everywhere now. It's basically electrosmog …

Therapeutic PEMFs typically have extremely low frequency. They're designed primarily to emulate more natural processes in the body. That's the primary difference. These are synergistic with body functions. They amplify body functions. They don't really introduce, in a sense, a new energy into the body. They stimulate the natural energy of the body itself, as opposed to microwaves.”

Interestingly, PEMFs appear to work largely via the same mechanism as EMFs, which I’ve detailed in articles such as “The Harmful Effects of Electromagnetic Fields Explained.” Both appear to affect the voltage-gated calcium channels in the membrane of your cells. The main differences, and these are crucial ones, are the intensity and duration, the frequency of the waves, and the slopes of the waves.

PEMFs are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The therapeutic band, however, is a rather narrow segment of fields. These fields are very similar to the EMFs found in our ionosphere — the so-called Schumann resonance.

More than 2,000 university-level double-blind studies have assessed the effectiveness of PEMFs for specific health conditions, and tens of thousands more have looked at the general actions of magnetic fields on cells and tissues. So, the science of therapeutic PEMF is well-established in the peer-reviewed literature.

PEMF for Pain and Neurological Conditions

The therapeutic benefits of PEMFs relate to the different processes they stimulate in your body. Pain is perhaps the primary problem for which people use PEMF, and treating chronic low back pain with PEMF has a very high success rate. According to Pawluk, PEMFs have “a natural painkilling effect, almost automatic.”

They also increase circulation, reduce inflammation and edema, improve adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, and stimulate RNA and DNA. “They basically help the body in general, to try to heal the cause of the pain,” he says.

You can also treat most neurological conditions with PEMF therapy. Here, PEMF is applied across the brain transcranially. In one of Pawluk’s studies, he treated 10 concussion patients for two hours a day for three months, using a portable battery-operated PEMF system at 10 hertz (which is 10 cycles per second). (Most cellphones, meanwhile, operate at about 5 gigahertz, which is 5 billion times per second — a much higher frequency, shorter wavelength.)

Coils were placed on the forehead and the back of the head. The brain was then treated for one hour front to back, and one hour across the parietal lobes (transtemporally/transparietally). Both subjective and objective testing were used to measure the effects over the course of three months. “They all improved, some of them very dramatically,” Pawluk says.

“After a month off, we retested them. They all backslid, but not all the way back. One of my patients had hit her head in a couple of car accidents. She's loaded with viruses and had mild temporal lobe fugue-type seizures. She went off for two weeks and couldn't stand being off. She broke protocol and went back on her magnetic system right away.”

There are a wide variety of PEMF devices on the market, at varying price points. As a general rule, the weaker the magnetic system, the longer the treatment needs to be in order to produce results. It’s important to get a device capable of treating the problem at hand, based on the healing capacity of that particular tissue, the depth of the pathology, the severity of the pathology, and how much work your body needs to do to recover that particular tissue. As an example, Pawluk discusses the treatment of low back pain:

“You can't easily treat a spinal stenosis at L4 and L5 with a low intensity device, because you often have to go about 3 to 4 inches into the body to adequately produce enough magnetic field. You need a stronger magnetic field. The one I’ve used — and that I use myself for my back, because I have back problems too — is a portable battery-operated system that has a 200-gauss maximum magnetic field.

Typically, what you do is you put one or two coils over the lower back, either stack them one on top of the other or side-by-side, and then you run the magnetic system at maximum intensity. I have people using them all night … Most of the frequencies used therapeutically range between 1 hertz to about 1,000 hertz. That's the typical range for PEMF systems, with the most common being under 100 Hz.”

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How Magnetic Fields Work

PEMF devices produce magnetic fields but, ultimately, an electric field is generated in the cells, which is what causes the biological changes. In his book, Pawluk also mentions some of the more esoteric considerations of how PEMFs work, but most of the current science is well-established and accepted. In a nutshell, when a magnetic field passes ions into the tissues, the tissue interacts with those ions.

“A classic rule of energy is that a magnetic field interacts with charge. It interacts with ions,” he says. “There's a push-pull that's going on. Ions are pushed or moved in relation to the magnetic field.” The movement of the ions then causes its own current, its own charge. This charge is what amplifies your body’s activities, facilitating healing and regeneration.

“We have just scratched the surface on all the different actions that magnetic fields have in the tissues. But the classic ones are, again, pain reduction, improved circulation, reduced inflammation, stimulating DNA and RNA, and reducing edema in the tissue. Those are the classic physiologic effects that are discernible, that are pretty well-seen by people,” he says.  

PEMF also appears to be very useful for enhancing mitochondrial function, and when your mitochondria are not working well, you're at a highly-increased risk of disease, including cancer. As mentioned earlier, one of the ways magnetic fields work is by activating calcium-gated channels, but they also open up other channels in the membranes. As a result, energy moves into the cell and waste comes out with calcium.

The calcium entering the channel and cell then binds to calmodulin, becoming calcium calmodulin, which enters, interacts with and opens channels in the mitochondrial membrane, which in turn creates ATP. According to Pawluk, you can achieve a 400- to 600-fold increase in ATP production with PEMF. PEMFs also have free radical-scavenging activity, thanks to the movement of ions. He explains:

“Oxidative stress in the tissues creates free radicals. Particularly in inflammation models, PEMFs increase circulation [which] increases free radical stress. But that’s a good thing. That temporarily increases acute inflammation. We need that for repair. Then, because of that, it actually causes your body to produce its own superoxide dismutase (SOD).

That’s a huge free radical quenching mechanism. This is why there's sometimes a delay in seeing the effects of PEMFs relative to actually healing the tissue, because it takes time (maybe a day or two) for the body to generate enough SOD.”

PEMF for Post-Surgical Healing

PEMF devices are being used clinically, and have been for some time. Some surgeons will use these devices to decrease post-surgical complications and wound healing. Pawluk used PEMF to speed healing after undergoing an appendectomy last summer. The therapy not only improves circulation and stimulates the tissues to be healthier, it also boosts production of heat shock proteins that protect your cells from damage, whether it's surgical damage, trauma, heat or radiation.

“When you pretreat the tissues with magnetic fields before you do a surgical procedure, the tissue is already healthier. Then when you cut into it, that tissue is now ready. It's got improved circulation and has decreased inflammation. It's generally more resistant to the stress of the surgery itself,” he explains.

“Then used after the procedure, you begin to bring in all the healing factors. You increase glycosaminoglycans. You increase collagen. You stimulate stem cells that are naturally in tissues and tissue growth factors. One of the major benefits of PEMFs is stimulating stem cells, and then that heals the wound. Before and after surgery, you get significant benefits with magnetic field therapy. You could shorten the healing time of a wound by about half.”

Unfortunately, very few plastic surgeons use this technique. You can, however, use it yourself. You don't need a doctor's prescription to use it. The FDA often considers PEMFs wellness devices. Many orthopedic surgeons, on the other hand, have been using it for decades, specifically for nonunion bone fractures that fail to respond to conventional approaches.

PEMF Improves Healing of Bone Fractures

PEMF technology was approved about 25 years ago by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for healing non-union fractures, which can cause prolonged pain and disability. Non-unions can be dealt with in three main ways, beyond surgery:

  • Direct current stimulation, where an electrode is placed, invasively, into the tissue to stimulate the bone directly
  • Stimulate across the wound using topical electrodes
  • Stimulate across the wound with magnetic field therapy, which has been found to be just as effective as the other approaches, and is significantly easier since it can be applied on top of both dressing and clothing. The magnetic therapy helps decrease swelling and edema, increases heat shock proteins and nitric oxide in the tissues, all of which reinitiates healing of the fracture. Typically, magnetic fields need to be applied for up to 12 hours a day for a year in order to get the bone to fully heal

Other FDA-approved indications for PEMF include bone implants and bone fusions such as cervical fusions, spinal fusions and foot fusions. “It's now relatively routine to use magnetic field therapy to make sure that a fusion takes,” he says.

“In fact, I do know orthopedic surgeons who don't want this technology to spread, because that reduces their surgical caseloads. I know surgeons who’ve basically quit surgical practice, because they got more benefit and more results for their patients by routinely using this technology in their office, and sending them home with devices.”

PEMF for Memory Strengthening and Alzheimer’s

PEMF therapy can also be beneficial in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It certainly needs to be part of the armamentarium. The reason it works is, again, because it improves circulation and dampens inflammation, and inflammation is a significant contributor to neurological degeneration. By reducing inflammation, you decrease the development and deposition of tau proteins in the brain.

PEMF also reduces protein misfolding, which is part of the Alzheimer's process. Pawluk uses it to strengthen his memory. Each day, he applies PEMF coils to the front and back of his head to stimulate short-term executive memory, and leaves them on during his hourlong walk. “The first time I did it, my vision became completely clear,” he says. “It was just amazing. Everything was bright.”

According to Pawluk, magnetic field therapy works for Alzheimer’s in the earlier stages of memory loss. Once you get to severe Alzheimer's, it’s not going to be very effective. For brain health, Pawluk typically uses 10 hertz, as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study found a 400 percent increase in neural stem cells, which are one of the hardest stem cells to grow, using a 10-hertz square wave signal.

I personally use transcranial PEMF treatment daily for optimizing brain function and Alzheimer’s prevention, and at night to promote deep sleep. The PEMF coil is placed under my occiput (base of the skull) and since I sleep on my back all night long as described in the article by Dr. Peter Martone, the coil stays in place without any attachment. I run the PEMF device at 3 hertz, which entrains the brain to deep sleep.

Other Uses of PEMF

PEMF therapy can also be used to:

Improve sleep

Brain waves are divided into delta, theta, alpha and beta. During sleep, 70 to 80 percent of the time you’re in theta. However, with age, that percentage goes down dramatically for most people. PEMF aids sleep by inducing resonance in your brain. High, sharp, fast frequencies in the beta range will wake you up, while frequencies in the delta range help anchor your brain in deep sleep.

“We can basically modulate the brain into any of the levels we want,” Pawluk explains. “For sleep, I prefer to have people anchored down into delta, because the brain’s going to try to escape delta to the extent that it can. That's its natural physiologic action. But if you're waking early, you want to drop down your theta as much as you can, so that you don't go up into the superficial levels of theta and wake up …

For people who have trouble falling asleep, I’ll have them do a half an hour or so on 10 hertz for relaxation. That’s the calming effect. You’re taking the brain down from beta down to alpha first. Then you move down to the theta. You use 7 hertz or 7.8 hertz and move them down to theta for maybe 15 minutes to half an hour. And then you go to bed, and you put on delta.”

Improve symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease

By decreasing activity in brain areas that stimulate spasticity and control mood, symptoms such as tremors and mood swings can be ameliorated. It’s possible that, over time, it may even help heal the brain lesions that are part of the disease process. 10 Hz may be most effective for this because of stem cell stimulation.

Improve symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS is associated with edema around each of the plaques. By reducing the edema, you may be able to reduce the damage, slow the progression of the disease and improve many of the symptoms, including the spasticity, cognitive and neurological symptoms. PEMFs are used to improve bladder spasticity in MS patients as well.

Reduce anxiety

When you’re anxious, you are primarily in the beta brainwave range. In other words, your brain is too hyperactive. By quieting it down, you can reduce that jitteriness and nervousness.

Lower adrenal stress

Many struggle with adrenal stress, which essentially translates to a sympathetic dominance in the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic is suppressed. To boost your parasympathetic tone, you typically would need to use whole-body stimulation, which will rebalance your entire autonomic nervous system.

At bare minimum, you would need a body applicator that targets your whole spine and brain. Placing the coil right under your skull, at the upper part of your neck, you can control the sympathetic and parasympathetic traffic going down the spine.

Improve asthma

Some eastern European countries use PEMF to treat asthma. By placing the coils on the back between the shoulder blades (L2 and L3), you control the sympathetic traffic to the bronchi and the brain, which helps normalize your entire body, while the magnetic field also flows into the lung tissues, providing a dual benefit.

Reduce stress

Treating the brain will also help reduce stress. Research has shown PEMFs trigger the hypothalamus to offload stress hormones, significantly reducing them.

More Information

A PEMF device is an excellent addition to any home health kit you may have, and you don’t need a prescription to get one. Most sell for about $1,000, but it’s a worthwhile investment for long-term health. In his book, “Power Tools for Health: How Pulsed Magnetic Fields (PEMFs) Help You,” Pawluk reviews a number of different devices available, and goes into far greater depth as to how they can benefit your health. 

Smaller, portable units can be used to treat a wide array of day-to-day problems, from carpal tunnel and tennis elbow to temporomandibular joint, periodontal problems and glaucoma. As noted by Pawluk, “There's no limitation to what you could use it for. You can use it on babies. You can use it on animals.”

There are very few contraindications, and most of them have to do with the physics of how electrical fields interact with magnetic fields. For example, if you have a pacemaker, you wouldn’t want to use a magnetic coil over the pacemaker, but you could still treat your foot, for example, without risk. It’s also contraindicated for use on actively bleeding wounds.

Also keep in mind that while it may sound like a magic bullet, using PEMF therapy does not mean you can ignore strategies that are really going to hit the foundation of your problem, especially if there’s a structural component or repetitive stress syndrome involved. Again, we’ve only covered a small portion of the information presented in “Power Tools for Health,” so to learn more, be sure to pick up a copy of this book.

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