Magnetic Pain Relief

By Dr. Peter Abaci

When I helped launch last year, I didn’t expect to be writing about magnets, but here I am, writing about magnets, or more specifically, using magnetic fields as a means of therapy.  Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been an emerging area of research and treatment for depression and now chronic pain conditions. 

What is TMS? 

Magnetic fields can create current flow in the body. When enough flow of current is generated, then this stimulates the activity of nerve cells, or neurons. The advantage that magnetic stimulation has over electrical stimulation on the brain or other parts of the nervous system is that because electrical current doesn’t pass through pain receptors on the skin it is relatively painless to deliver. TMS has been used to change the firing pattern in targeted areas of the brain, particularly around parts of the cortex. TMS was first developed in 1985 and was initially used to study diseases like depression and schizophrenia. TMS received FDA approval for the treatment of depression in 2008. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS, delivers repetitive trains of pulses at specific intensities and frequencies to more precisely target brain regions.

Treatment with TMS is non-invasive and a session usually lasts 30-60 minutes. An electromagnetic coil held near the head delivers magnetic pulses which create electrical currents that stimulate nerve cells in certain selected regions of the brain. While not typically painful, this can create a tapping sensation on the scalp, as well as tingling or twitching around the jaw. Mild headaches or light-headedness can occur in some instances.

Can TMS Treat Pain?

Well, that is what some researchers are trying to figure out. Because TMS can be delivered safely, painlessly, and without dreadful medication side effects, there is now a lot of interest in figuring out what role it can play. Some earlier studies done on painful conditions like neuropathic pain initially found short-term pain relief with TMS, but not necessarily longer lasting benefit. Now researchers want to see if delivering multiple sessions of TMS can lead to brain remodeling that can sustain improvements and prolong pain relief.

Over the last few years, a few studies have touted improvements in mood, well-being, and pain symptoms for fibromyalgia patients treated with TMS, with more are on the way. A new study from France just got released using TMS on fibromyalgia patients for 14 sessions delivered over a span of 10 weeks.  They reported positive results including significant improvements in quality of life measurements and better social engagement with their study group for those who received TMS.

TMS has also been tried on debilitating pain conditions like complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) that can be refractory to many types of treatments with some reported success. When I recently spoke with noted brain researcher Dr. Sean Mackey from Stanford on the subject, he too was studying the effects of TMS on painful conditions like CRPS. While TMS may hold promise for the treatment of certain painful conditions as well as associated symptoms like depression, using it in the clinical setting for pain treatment is still considered off-label at present, but that could change as research continues. Be sure to follow this topic closely to see how things unfold.


(Image used with permission from


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