For many years, magnets have been an important tool in diagnostic medicine. Magnetic resonance imaging — also called MRI — uses powerful magnets to visualize internal structures in the body. These scans protect our brain health by identifying tumors, hemorrhages, and strokes.
More recently, however, medical professionals have begun using magnets to treat a range of mental ills, from Parkinson’s disease to obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).
By affecting the electrical signaling of the brain, rTMS alters the firing of communicating neurons and improves a number of mental symptoms. More recently researchers are using this noninvasive method to treat one of the most common and challenging mental conditions of all: chronic pain.
Under the leadership of David Yeoman, investigators at Stanford University are using rTMS to target an area of the frontal lobe, the anterior cingulate, which controls our experience of pain.
Pain sensations were induced in healthy subjects using a hot plate. Later, just 30 minutes of rTMS treatment led to an 80 percent reduction in levels of pain sensation.
Another type of test, called a positron emission tomography (PET) scan also showed less neural activity in the anterior cingulate of patients treated with magnets. To follow up on these initial findings, the scientists treated chronic pain from fibromyalgia and found that four weeks of a daily dose of rTMS caused a 50 percent reduction in pain levels.
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