PEMF (Pulsed Electromagnetic Field): What the Research Shows

I am always open for new ideas and ways to help injured people and animals, but after I had first heard of PEMF, I was a little skeptical. So my physical therapist mind kicked in and thought I would “single handedly disprove this modality!” My initial thought is that it was just another “gimmick” or sham machine being sold by a slick salesman.

But what I am finding out, as I do my research of clinical studies, research articles, and my own practical experience with PEMF, is that it is a wonderful modality that can aid in pain relief and regenerative properties that has not been seen in a long time in the healing arts.

So what is PEMF? PEMF stands for Pulsed Electromagnetic Field. The PEMF process involves generating and directing powerful, pulsed energy waves toward damaged or injured areas of the patient’s body. These waves quickly pass through the cells in the damaged region, increasing the spin of the electrons contained within them as a result.

Using the above described mechanism, Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields (PEMF) allow the body to heal itself naturally. The machines have a unique electrical current that runs through a copper coil that creates a pulsing magnetic field. These are known as PEMFs.

Research about PEMF has been ongoing since the 1940s. Scientists have published thousands of studies, clinical trials, and research articles on the topic. PEMF has claimed to be found to stimulate cell metabolism, increase oxygenation, and reduce inflammation. They say the action can cause a chain of processes in the body that can lead to improvement of health without adverse side effects of drugs or surgery.

But what is the research actually showing?

Arthritis

One of the biggest areas of promise for the animal kingdom is in the treatment of arthritis. Since there are no options for total joint replacement yet in horses or dogs with advanced arthritis, PEMF offers a treatment option that is safe and not drug based. In a review article published in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, Ganesan and colleagues reviewed various research of PEMF and found that PEMF is a viable alternative therapy for treatment of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Trock and colleagues found in a double blind clinical trial of patients with primary osteoarthritis of the knee that PEMF given three to five treatments per week for 30 minutes/day for a total of 18 treatments in one month had a 47% improvement in pain level, joint motion, and tenderness. 

Fracture Healing

Another area of promise is in treatment of fractures. Boopalan and colleagues found significant increase in bone formation in a study group (those that received PEMF) verses a control group (those that did not receive PEMF). This study was of rats that all had the same bone lesion created at the same time. The study group of rats received PEMF for one hour twice daily for six weeks. The control group received no treatment. The changes were documented through x-rays and also through weight of the bones after the rats had been euthanized. The study group had a significant statistical improvement in bone formation and also an improvement in bone density or weight, although this was not considered to be statistically significant.

Chronic Pain and Fibromyalgia

Serup and colleagues found in a double blind, sham-controlled clinical study that PEMF was helpful in treatment of fibromyalgia which includes symptoms associated with chronic pain, depression, and fatigue. The study group was treated by laying on a PEMF mat for 30 minutes, twice daily for three weeks. The control group also laid on the mat, but the PEMF device was not turned on. This study found a statistical difference between the treatment group at the end of treatment, with the PEMF group having better pain, improved depression, and improved fatigue levels. But when they returned for follow-up at 12 weeks after treatment, there was no statistical difference between the groups.

Tendon and Soft Tissue Healing

There are some articles out there that are showing promise with tendon-to-bone healing, such as with the article published from Tucker. There was not much variance in soft tissue strength in a PEMF group verses non-PEMF group but did appear to have merit with attachments of tendons to bone and bone densities.

In conclusion, these are just a few areas that I have dove into to see if PEMF had the research behind it to support its use. I am now a believer that PEMF can and does help with management of arthritis and fractures. It may have more limited applications in treating soft tissues, but there may just need to be more studies performed in this area.

Becky Pearson, PT, CERP, LAPT