The NPF’s Magnet Mishap

A story on the NPF goofing around with magnet therapy, and not in a particularly good way.

Grade D

As a card-carrying member of the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF), I feel it’s not only responsible of me, but required of me, to speak up on issues that reflect badly on this otherwise fine organisation.

I would have been aware of this earlier had I read my NPF Bulletin more closely, but back in the May/June 2002 Bulletin, the NPF printed the following in an article titled “Managing Psoriatic Arthitis Pain”:

While there are several theories as to why magents might be effective for pain, no one is absolutely sure how they work…

Indignant (and rightfully so), a reader complained about such a gloss on magnetherapy for pain in the September/October 2002 Bulletin, even including a link to a Quackwatch article about the scams of, and legal proceedings against, sellers of “therapeutic” magnets.

How did the NPF Bulletin editors reply? They blew the complaint off:

Editor’s Note: The NPF does not endorse or recommend any treatment for psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. We have heard of complications occurring with the use of magnets, and we suggest anyone thinking of trying it consult with a physician first. We have also heard from NPF members that using magnets has helped their psoriatic arthritis pain and even improved their psoriasis.

The NPF may not explicitly endorse any treatment, but the implication in the original item — that magnets do indeed work, even if no one knows how — is certainly an endorsement (however small) of a pseudoscientific fraud. Besides a pilot study from Baylor, the only “evidence” that magnets work is in the form of testimonials from people who’ve used them. The NPF editors are doing little but repeating a magnet-salesman’s hype about the product when they talk about what they’ve heard from NPF members.

Where was the NPF’s Medical Advisory Board? Do they play no part in vetting the articles in the Bulletin?

The NPF has the following to say on its Alternative MethodsPDF File web page [April 3, 2003, Update: The NPF has changed the language in its section on magnets]:

Promotion and use of therapeutic magnets for relieving pain has become more and more popular in recent years.

If popularity were any indication of a therapy’s usefulness, then “ignore it and it’ll go away” would be the most-recommended treatment for all diseases. It isn’t, for good reason.

The page continues:

While there are several theories as to why they might be effective, no one is absolutely sure how magnets work.

Sounds familiar…

It’s easy to find positive testimonials about magnet therapy, but rigorous scientific studies are less common.

In reality, truly rigorous scientific studies showing a positive effect are not only “less common,” they are non-existent.

Still, they may be worth a try for a person suffering with chronic pain from psoriatic arthritis.

And I thought they said the NPF doesn’t endorse anything? Sure, “may be worth a try” isn’t the same as “go out and buy some magnets today,” but there’s not a lot of difference when a person is desperate for some relief.

According to an NPF survey about their own publications (story on page 2 of the July, 2002, Psoriasis Resource), 29% of respondents said that they thought that the advertising in the Resource implied endorsement by the NPF (a further 20% weren’t sure). I don’t know if the survey bothered to ask, but I would guess that the percentage of people who believe that the articles in NPF publications imply endorsement is much higher.

Some articles most assuredly endorse some things, such as the front-page article (same issue) which tells a person how to get the most out of their health-care team. Does the completely credulous article on pages 6 and 7 of the July, 2001, Resource — “Change Your Life by Improving Your Chi” — endorse Feng Shui? Ironically, the same issue has an article titled “Calling Quacks into Question” on page 10 (also ironically, the article is right next to an ad for Pagano’s Cookbook). Are any of the suggestions there (for steering clear of health scams) endorsed by the NPF?

That article talks about how the “NPF has contacted the FDA about many” psoriasis products which contain ingredients not known to improve psoriasis. The FDA is strapped for cash and manpower, and so can’t do much against the sort of two-bit operations that often promote these things (the FDA has to fry the bigger fish, first). But rather than run with the ball themselves, and alert its members to possible scams, the NPF instead mentions them in articles and says “they may be worth a try.”

The NPF’s endorsement policy, editorial policy, and advertising policy all need to mesh, but it sure seems like they don’t. Taking money from quacks to advertise their snake oils (thus perpetuating the scams) seems hypocritical. Of the sixteen ads I counted in the July, 2002, Resource, six of them (about a third) were at least questionable. The same issue has an article titled “Spa Therapy for Psoriasis? What to Make of Water-Based Therapies.” With a title like that, surely it contains information on whether or not spas are useful for psoriasis. Nope. “Some NPF members have reported beneficial effects from their time at spas” is as close as they come.

This, the Feng Shui article, the ads for products of unknown efficacy, and the junk about magnets, is not “News You Can Use” for psoriasis.