To speed post-surgery healing; Janine Sherman reaches for magnets instead of medicine. When Denise La Chance feels a migraine coming on, she grabs her magnetic necklace, not her Demerol.

And, for lower back pain, Nick Podolsky straps on his magnetic belt

Magnetic therapy "has been like a miracle for me," said La Chance, an Oceanside preschool teacher who used to have such bad migraine headaches she'd take to her bed with an ice pack on her head. However, she says the headaches ceased when she began wearing a magnetic necklace about a year ago. I wear it constantly now. I just take it off to shower and sleep," La Chance said, noting that she tried wearing the necklace to bed, but its "energy" prevented her from resting.

Sherman has used magnets to treat everything from burns and cuts to heel spurs and even to help heal after a hysterectomy.

"I should have been in bed for more than a week. But, (after using the magnets) I was out running around in just three days," said the 47- year old Temecula resident. She became so convinced of magnetic healing powers that she's now a distributor for Nikken magnets.

Likewise, Podolsky credits his magnetic belt for ending crippling back pain and Saving him from the operating table. I had such sciatica I could barely sit or sleep for over a month," said the Encinitas resident. I thought I had only two choices: drugs or surgery. But then my wife read about magnets. After wearing a magnetic belt for just over a week, "I was completely out of pain," said Podolsky, who with his wife, Inga, now owns the Magnetic Therapy Store in Encinitas, where he sells everything from $10 magnetic toothbrushes to $400 magnetic mattress pads.

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, magnetic therapy has gone from a New Age trend to mainstream healing and is now showing up in some chiropractors' and doctors' offices around the country.

But, not everyone finds magnetic therapy so attractive. "It's essentially quackery," said William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud and a professor of public health and medicine at Loma Linda University. "The (sale of) magnets is driven by the enthusiasm of salespeople, the inability of lay people to tell the difference between real and imagined effects, and the failure of businesses to meet certain standards of conduct." So far, there is scant objective scientific evidence in the form of controlled, blind studies to show magnetic therapy's effectiveness.

"The big test of this is to have someone remove the magnets from a pad or wrap without them knowing it and see if they still feel the effect," said James Murray, a neurobiologist at UCSD and member of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry, a skeptics' group. It's physically possible that the magnets are doing something. But are they relieving pain? It's unlikely".

If magnet manufacturers really believe magnetic therapy works, they should have it scientifically tested and remove the stigma of quackery, Jarvis said, but the people who sell magnets are interested in marketing, not testing," he said. The placebo effect is one possible explanation for the pain relief some people claim they get from magnets. "They want to believe it works, so it works. When they sleep on a new mattress pad they just spent $400 on, they want to see results," Murray said.

Some doctors say many types of pain and discomfort diminish or disappear over time with no treatment at all. It’s merely coincidence that they're feeling better while they try something new (to alleviate the discomfort)," said Dr. Stephen Barratt, author of the book "Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America." They may try to connect the two, particularly if somebody - like a magnet salesperson - suggests there's a connection." Despite the lack of clinical testing, some members of the traditional medical community aren't as quick to dismiss magnetic therapy as quackery.

Dr. Mark Wallace, an anesthesiologist specializing in pain management and co-director of UCSD's Pain Clinic, says he's "neutral" on magnetic therapy. "A lot of people use nontraditional (pain control) methods including magnets and they claim it works for them. I believe them," Wallace said. "I can't comment on any scientific foundation because we just don't know," He cautions people not to write off magnetic therapy as "hocus-pocus." I wouldn't call it quackery and I wouldn't call it 'the real thing.' I think it needs to be investigated," Wallace said.

Dr. Bradley Eli, a dentist and pain specialist at Scripps Pain Center, not only keeps an open mind about magnetic therapy, but he also keeps magnets on hand for patients to try. "I tell (patients) to take them home and try them. If they don't work, bring them back," Eli said. Same of his patients have had good results with the magnets others haven't. Eli considers magnetic therapy "just an additional form of therapy." "I work in an environment that relies heavily on subjective reports and what the patient says. If they tell me a $20 magnet helps their problem, why wouldn't I (offer) them that? I know it's not going to hurt them," he said.

Eli says magnet therapy shouldn't be used for all kinds of pain - especially those for which there are proven remedies, But he's willing to have patients give magnets a try if all other standard forms of medicine have been tried unsuccessfully. "If somebody has pain and for some reason they can take no medication and it's impossible to use any of the available (medical) techniques, I can say, "sorry, there's nothing I can do. Learn to live with the pain.' Or, I can say, ‘Why don't you try this magnet and tell me if you think it works at all for you?" Eli said.

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no control over magnetic therapy because the magnets are not advertised as medical devices. Without government clearance, proponents can legally make no direct health claims about magnetic therapy. Magnet stores, catalogs and salespeople are careful to use the correct marketing verbiage and balance their claims with disclaimers. "I'm not supposed to say (magnets) to relieve pain' because then the FDA will want proof. I'm supposed to say they 'ease discomfort,' "Janine Sherman said. A sign reading, "we do not sell medical devices" is posted in the Podolskys' Magnetic Store. Similar notices appear in magnet product catalogs and brochures.

Jarvis, of the National Council Against Health Fraud, says the disclaimers are "simple duplicity." "Nobody buys those things unless it's for a medical purpose. They can always dance around the law with their disclaimers," Jarvis said. "If people are buying these magnets with the belief that they will relieve pain, it's a medical device." While the FDA has sent warning letters to some magnet distributors in other states demanding an end to unsubstantiated claims, the agency has taken no action against any California magnet sellers. According to Laurel Eu, spokeswoman for the FDA in Los Angeles, the agency knows about magnet products, and "tries to monitor them as much as our resources will allow." To date, the Federal Trade Commission does not have any complaint cases pending against magnet providers.

How magnetic therapy is supposed to work is a bit vague and often depends on whom you talk to. One theory is that magnets affect the body at a cellular level, exposing individual cells to beneficial negative magnetic fields. This is supposed to help cells carry more oxygen, increase blood flow, reduce swelling, lower the body's acidity and promote faster healing. Others Say it’s the iron in red blood cells that responds to the magnetic field, causing the blood to become more active as it flows through vessels past the magnets.

Inga Podolsky says magnets "stimulate the curative facilities." Her husband, Nick, believes magnets help balance the body's energy and promote the body's ability to heal itself.

Janine Sherman believes magnets work by bringing the positive and negative ions in the blood to the surface. "It swirls the ions around increasing circulation," she said. while magnetic therapy advocates don't all agree on how it works, they do agree that it doesn't work for everybody. Everyone's reaction to magnets is different," said Inga Podolsky, adding that some form of magnet therapy has been used for more than 3,000 years in China. "Some people are So sensitive they feel the magnet power right away. Some people need a couple of hours (to feel it). Others need a couple of days." Magnet proponents say that 80 percent of the population will feel the effect of magnets. However, this statistic is also disputed. Where does this 80 percent figure come from? I can't believe anyone has ever done a study and counted (the results)," said Barratt.

The magnets used in magnetic therapy are not like the little decorative variety plastered all over your refrigerator or office board. Magnets used in therapy are much stronger, Inga Podolsky said. Refrigerator magnets have about four gauss (the measure of magnetic strength); therapeutic magnets have 800 or more gauss.

The unipole magnets recommended for therapeutic use are flat-surface magnets with magnetic poles on opposite sides. The negative side (the north pole) – which is supposed to promote healing and calming - is usually pointed toward the body or placed on the area of pain. Industrial magnets, or those you use on a refrigerator, are bipolar both positive and negative energy are present on the same side of a magnet - and are not suitable for treatment, Inga Podolsky said.

Therapeutic magnets are marketed in various forms: embedded in car cushions, shoe insoles facial masks, jewelry and self-adhesive "wraps" for backs, knees wrists or elbows. They're also sold as individual spot magnets - about the size of a quarter or a half-dollar. – to be taped onto the body's sore points.

Whether or not magnet therapy relieves bodily pain, you can count on magnets causing some discomfort in the wallet. A seat cushion containing 10 1,000 gauss magnets costs $149; a flexible magnetic back belt is $80; a magnetic health and beauty mask (reminiscent of the Freddie Krueger look in the movie "Halloween") is $105; and magnetic necklaces cost about $66. "It's really not that expensive when you consider how (rapidly) they work, and there are no chemicals or drugs involved." Inga said. Nick Podolsky is aware that many people are skeptical about magnetic therapy. He admits he, too had his doubts in the beginning. But, he says magnets need to be tried to be believed. "It's their right not to believe (in magnet therapy)and their loss if they don’t want to try it," he said.