In today’s world, we are constantly being exposed to electromagnetic fields, which tends to make people nervous. Who hasn’t heard concerns about EMFs and their potential health harms? We’re supposed to keep our cell phones away from our heads, turn the wifi off at night, avoid living under big power lines.
So it would make sense if you were wary of PEMF therapy. In both cases, the “EMF” stands for electromagnetic field (the P standing for pulsed). But while just-EMF is supposed to be harmful (although the degree to which we need to worry is still up for debate), the pulsed kind is supposed to offer wide-ranging benefits. What gives?
Let’s back up. PEMF therapy claims to use low-frequency electromagnetic fields to help your own electrified cells function more optimally. With chronic illness on the rise, PEMF potentially offers a non-invasive therapy that can be used in place of or alongside conventional treatments to enhance their effectiveness.
People have been using magnets for therapeutic purposes since ancient times, long before the principles of magnetism and electricity were fully understood. Modern PEMF technology has been around for decades and is well-studied, although much of the early research was conducted behind the Iron Curtain, so it perhaps feels newer than it actually is. But PEMF therapy isn’t new, nor does it fall under the realm of “alternative” therapies. It has been FDA-approved for healing nonunion fractures for over four decades. NASA has developed PEMF technology to be used in regenerating cartilage.1 There’s a decent chance that your allopathic doctor knows about it and may even have a PEMF device in their clinic.
Before trying it out for yourself, here’s what you need to know to get started.
How Does PEMF Therapy Work?
First, you’ll need access to a PEMF device, which generally consists of a control unit attached to an accessory such as a paddle or mat. The accessory contains metal coils through which electricity is passed, generating an electromagnetic field. Simply place the paddle or pad over the treatment area, turn on the machine, and let it do its thing. Some machines come with pads the size of small throw blankets so you can treat your whole body at once.
While you lie there, a pulsed electromagnetic field (hence the name) is passing through your body. That sounds like the stuff of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, but it’s not painful. You shouldn’t feel anything other than a pulsing or tapping sensation and perhaps some muscle contractions.
As the electromagnetic field passes through, it interacts with your body’s own electrical systems, if you will, to improve health. Exactly how it does that it still something of a mystery. The basic science is well-understood, boiling down to Faraday’s law of induction (for all the physicists in the crowd. The rest of us don’t need to get bogged down in the details, although I invite any of you physics-minded types to expound on electromagnetism in the comments.) But, if you keep drilling down to the fundamental how of it all, things start to get murky.
The general idea here is that when your cells aren’t functioning optimally or they can’t communicate with the cells around them, this forms the basis of many chronic illnesses. PEMFs seem to promote or restore healthy cellular functioning.
By my reading of the literature, PEMF therapy is best characterized as an “enhancer.” Instead of injecting some therapeutic agent or prompting supranormal physiological responses, PEMF enhances your body’s ability to do what it would ideally do naturally: maintain homeostasis, heal from injury, fight off foreign invaders, and eradicate dysfunctional cells (including cancerous ones). It clears the way for optimal functioning, removing barriers where they exist and facilitating the body’s ability to build, repair, and heal itself.
There are now thousands of studies demonstrating various mechanisms of action of PEMF therapy. These include but are not limited to 2
Enhancing cellular energy by promoting ATP synthesis. (ATP, you may recall, is the “energy currency” that fuels all cellular processes.)3
Acting on the cellular membrane. Restoring membrane potential and modifying the activity of receptors and ion channels, allowing for better passage of nutrients and oxygen into the cell and waste products out. Modifying the activity of proteins on the cell’s surface and impacting intracellular communication.
Modulating gene expression.
Improving circulation, perhaps by increasing nitric oxide production, which acts as a vasodilator, and promoting angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels.4 This also boosts nutrient and oxygen delivery and waste product clearance. (Notably, though, PEMF also seems to exert anti-angiogenic effects on tumor cells, cutting off their blood supply.5 It also seems to disrupt harmful angiogenesis in rheumatoid arthritis.6)
Because PEMF therapy seems to promote healthy cellular physiology, and every tissue and organ in the body boils down to cells, PEMFs could theoretically be applied anywhere there is dysfunction or dysregulation. Indeed, if you pop “PEMF and [any medical problem]” into Google Scholar, you’ll probably get a hit.
This is not to say that PEMF therapy is the magic bullet we’ve all been waiting for, ready to eradicate all disease so we can achieve our centenarian aspirations. Any proponents who are being honest will tell you that it’s hard to predict if PEMF therapy will be successful for a given individual and, if so, how long it will take. Insofar as PEMF seems to boost the body’s innate healing and homeostatic processes, it can only do so much. Your body has to do the rest.
Still, PEMF therapy shows promise across an impressively wide array of conditions thanks to the mechanisms of action listed above, plus many others. To give you a taste:
Fractures, Bone Health
This was one of the earliest applications for PEMF and is still a popular non-surgical therapy for non-union fractures, which are bone fractures that refuse to heal. PEMF therapy stimulates osteoblasts (bone building cells) and suppresses osteoclasts (bone degrading cells). A recent 2020 meta-analysis confirms that PEMF helps fractures heal faster and more quickly.12
Similarly, PEMF therapy can help mitigate bone loss, improve bone mineral density, and reduce pain in people with osteoporosis.13
Both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis may benefit from PEMF thanks to its anti-inflammatory action and how it it promotes collagen deposition in joints.14 There’s also evidence that PEMF stimulates special cells in the joints called mesenchymal stromal cells that play a vital role in healing and repair.15
Pain management, especially chronic pain, is a vexing problem for medical providers or patients thanks to analgesic drugs’ long-term side effects, which are often significant. PEMF doesn’t just mask pain but targets the underlying inflammation and edema that cause pain after injury or surgery,16 as well as in chronic pain conditions like back pain17 and fibromyalgia.18
Mental Health and Neurological Disorders
Electromagnetic therapies have long been used in treating brain issues like depression, but PEMF should not be confused with electroconvulsive therapy (a very intense therapy reserved for severe depression) or the more common transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The latter is conceptually similar to PEMF, with low-frequency electromagnetic stimulation applied to the brain, but it is more targeted and designed to induce neuronal firing. It also can only be used in a clinical setting. PEMF targets the entire brain and can be used at home.
We have some evidence that PEMF can be a safe and effective treatment modality for depression,19 and there is much interest in its potential to help with other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
PEMF therapy won’t cure cancer, but where it might shine is as an adjuvant treatment that increases the effectiveness of conventional treatments and decreases negative side effects. In in vitro studies, PEMF induces cancer cell apoptosis (cell death).20
Untold numbers of people are going to be struggling with post-COVID symptoms such as persistent respiratory issues, weakness, and fatigue in the coming years. PEMF might help by reducing inflammation, improving microvasculature, reducing rouleaux formation in the blood (the clumping together of red blood cells), or other mechanisms. There are already some published case reports documenting benefits2122 and at least one registered clinical trial. This could be a game-changer.
Is PEMF Therapy Safe?
As I said, most concerns regarding PEMF safety are due to inappropriately conflating PEMFs with EMFs from electronic devices and power lines. PEMF therapy devices have been studied for decades and are being used every day in medical clinics and homes around the world without any reports of serious adverse effects.
More to the point, PEMF therapy devices are not the same as the EMFs people are worried about when they talk about “electro-smog.” Furthermore, even if you wanted to avoid electromagnetic fields, you couldn’t. The Earth itself emits a pulsed electromagnetic field. Solar radiation—the sunlight hitting your skin that is so essential for health that I made sun exposure one of the 10 Primal Blueprint laws—is electromagnetic.
YOU are electromagnetic. The human body is basically electrified meat wrapped around a skeleton. EEGs measure electrical activity in the brain. You’ve heard about electrolytes and their critical role in everyday functioning. Well, the electro in electrolytes refers to the fact that electrolytes are ions that carry a positive or negative charge and facilitate electrical activity in the body. In short, don’t be put off by PEMF because of the “electromagnetic” part.
There are a few considerations to bear in mind, though. Occasionally, people do report mild discomfort when using the device, but this should dissipate over time. Some people may be hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields and so might be more prone to experiencing side effects like fatigue, brain fog, or dizziness. These folks may want to avoid PEMF therapy or at least proceed slowly.
You should consult a doctor before starting PEMF therapy if you have any implanted metal devices, are pregnant, or taking any prescription medications. There is a possibility that PEMFs could increase the drugs’ absorption rate, potentially leading to toxicity.
Choosing a PEMF Device
Many companies now manufacture devices for home use. They range in price from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars and into five figures for the highest-end models. Which one to choose?
I’d say the best course of action, especially if you intend to use PEMF to address a specific health issue, is to talk to a practitioner familiar with using PEMF to treat your condition. PEMF applications differ in terms of the intensity, frequency, and waveform (shape of the wave), as well as the frequency of treatment, length of each treatment session, and total duration. You want to try to choose the most effective one. In truth, though, nobody knows with any certainty what exact PEMF protocol is best for a given individual or a particular disorder. Still, try to find someone to point you in the right direction, ideally someone who doesn’t have skin in the game. (If a salesperson tells you their device is definitely best for you, back away slowly. They’re selling you unfounded promises.).
Understand that PEMF therapy can be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. In some studies, participants are using their devices for ten or more hours a day for months at a time. If you’re going to make that investment, it’s worth getting the best device you can afford. If you can, start by finding a doctor in your area who has a PEMF device that you can test drive for a while to see if you notice any benefit before purchasing one yourself.
PEMF therapy is certainly intriguing. Sure, it’s not something our ancestors would have had access to. That is, unless you consider grounding. Grounding, or earthing, is the practice of walking barefoot to “plug in” to the Earth’s electrical field. Although some of the claims associated with earthing seem a little far-fetched, it’s pretty easy to see the potential overlap between low-frequency PEMF and grounding. Is there something there? Maybe.
In any case, the idea of using a non-invasive, seemingly low-risk devise to improve cellular communication and energy is appealing.
To be clear, although I highlighted the positive effects of PEMF therapy here, plenty of studies also show no benefit (but also no harm). This may be because the researchers in the null studies simply used ineffective protocols. There’s no way to know without more data.
Finally, the current research understandably focuses on specific medical issues more than general health and longevity, but I’m sure a lot of you are more interested in how PEMFs could be used to keep the system fully charged, so to speak. Proponents of the technology will say that PEMFs can be used to maintain health and promote optimal well-being. And I can see why that might be the case. Unfortunately, that kind of thing is hard to test (and will never get research money thrown at it).
What do you think? Does this technology pique your interest? Have you used it before, and if so, what were your results?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.