The Japanese know magnets are not just for sticking notes on the fridge door. They've been using them to Improve circulation and reduce muscle pain and inflammation for hundreds of years and now; it seems magnet therapy is interesting North Americans.

People with sports injuries use magnets with phenomenal results, says pharmacy owner Harlan Lahti. "I have amazing results with back problems." he says, "We're seeing more and more demand for them as books come out."

The principle behind therapeutic magnet use is not difficult to understand, he says. "Red blood cells have iron, so they respond to the magnetic field by spinning and, as blood flows through blood vessels past the magnet (placed on the body), it becomes more active and uses more oxygen. When you increase oxygenation, you get faster healing. That's it in a nutshell." These magnets are marketed in various forms; embedded in patches, mattresses, car seats, shoe insoles or inflexible plastic plates, covering the lower back.

Lahti, who uses a magnetized car seat, says he can drive for hours without getting a sore back. Some naturopathic physicians and acupuncturists also use magnet therapy he says.

Dr. Wah Jun Tze, president of Vancouver Hospital's Tzu Chi lnstitute for complementary and Alternative Medicine, has heard of magnet therapy only in the past year but doesn't see it as a priority for research in the institute.

On The other hand, Dr. Doug Clement of the sports medicine clinic at the University of British Columbia is cautiously optimistic that there might be something to it. The clinic is engaged in research involving the effect of electro-magnetic shields on healing soft tissue injuries and decreasing pain.

The clinic previously conducted research with the university’s department of physical medicine on an electro-magnetic shield, a product called Farabloc, and found that it reduced the discomfort of phantom limb pain.

"It led us to becoming interested in the effects of magnets and how they may affect our functioning. One theory is that magnets have an effect on iron containing substances in our body," he says. Red blood cells, muscle cells and some enzymes carry iron, he says.

"One theory is the magnets could increase the "drive" of iron containing enzymes or alter their function in some manner." Clement says. "The idea of the shield is, it could work by reducing magnetic energy from outside or it could work from the inside so it retains body magnetics so it isn't lost. That's two possible ways it might work.