A historical perspective of the popular use of electric and magnetic therapy

Jeffrey R. Basford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Objectives: To review the history of the therapeutic use of static electric and magnetic fields and to understand its implications for current popular and medical acceptance of these and other alternative and complementary therapies. Data Sources: Comprehensive MEDLINE (1960-2000) and CINAHL (1982-2000) computer literature searches by using key words such as electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic, therapy, medicine, EMF, history of medicine, and fields. Additional references were obtained from the bibliographies of the selected articles. In addition, discussions were held with curators of medical history museums and supplemental searches were made of Internet sources through various search engines. Study Selection: Primary references were used whenever possible. In a few instances, secondary references, particularly those requiring translations of early texts, were used. Data Synthesis: The use of electric and magnetic forces to treat disease has intrigued the general public and the scientific community since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. The popularity of these therapies has waxed and waned over the millennia, but at all times the popular imagination, often spurred by dynamic and colorful practitioners of pseudoscience, has been more excited than the medical or political establishment. In fact, a pattern seems to reappear. In each era, unsophisticated public acceptance is met first with medical disdain, then with investigation, and, finally, with a failure to find objective evidence of efficacy. This pattern continues today with the public acceptance of magnetic therapy (and alternative and complementary medicine in general) far out-stripping acceptance by the medical community. Conclusion: The therapeutic implications of applying electrical and magnetic fields to heal disease have continually captured the popular imagination. Approaches thousands of years apart can be remarkably similar, but, in each era, proof has been lacking and the prevailing medical establishment has remained unconvinced. Interest persists today. Although these agents may have a future role in the healing of human disease, their history and a minimal scientific rationale makes it unlikely that the dichotomy between the hopes of the public and the medical skepticism will disappear.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1261-1269
Number of pages9
JournalArchives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2001


  • Electric stimulation therapy
  • Electromagnetics
  • History
  • Magnetics
  • Rehabilitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Rehabilitation


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