As with all novel forms of medical treatment and prevention, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) too has received its fair share of skepticism and concerns about its safety.
But with its growing popularity and good reputation among clinical technologies, researchers have also invested substantial effort into establishing the truth about its effects.
The results overwhelmingly favor the conclusion that PEMF devices are generally very safe to use, and cause little to no harm to the user, even with frequent applications over a lengthy period.
Nonetheless, there are certain precautions to keep in mind. In this article, we will go over some of the questions raised about the safety of PEMF therapy, and whether or not these fears are legitimate.
By the end of this article, you will be able to determine whether or not PEMF therapy is for you.
Electromagnetic radiation is inescapable.
From the second you are born right up until the very end of your life, your body is constantly experiencing various types of waves across the electromagnetic spectrum.
And without these waves—radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays—the universe as we know it could not exist.
That is not to say that all of these waves are equally beneficial for your health.
For instance, UV radiation from the sun is important primarily because it helps stimulate vitamin D production in the body.
It is also sometimes used in clinical treatments for a few health conditions such as rickets and psoriasis.
However, the benefits are received only when UV radiation is administered in very small doses.
Any more than that, and the risks (sunburn, allergic reactions, skin and eye damage, skin cancer, etc.) outweigh the benefits, which is why it is so imperative for people in most climate zones to use sunscreen and/or other forms of protection from UVA/UVB rays when the sun is out.
Similarly, x-rays or gamma rays at high intensities also have the potential to cause serious damage to the human body.
The good news is that there are few natural sources for these ionizing forms of electromagnetic radiation, and artificial sources are highly regulated.
For example, X-ray machines only release the waves in tiny doses, and nuclear power plants are required to be very secure.
And PEMF devices do not produce ionizing radiation at all.
Non-ionizing radiation consists of those electromagnetic waves that do not carry enough energy to liberate electrons from atoms or molecules.
Therefore, they cannot change the genetic material—which for most organisms including humans is DNA—within your cells.
These waves can still effect some non-mutagenic biological change within the body, including the heating of tissues, and sometimes burns or injuries to the eyes and skin.
But most sources of these waves, including your cell phones and computers and the majority of electric household appliances, do not emit enough radiation to cause perceptible damage.
Similarly, PEMF devices typically emit radiation with quite low frequencies and higher wavelengths.
Most PEMF devices, at least all of the ones approved by the FDA, release waves that fall within the range of 30 to 30,000 Hz (0.03 KHz to 30 KHz) which encompasses the very low frequency (VLF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) bands.
At this level, there is no thermal change within the body.
Instead, the waves only raise cellular energy—essentially recharging your bodily batteries, and facilitating a number of health benefits.
Unlike most non-clinical sources of radiation, however, these devices release the waves in pulses.
This, coupled with the frequency of the pulses (generally 2-50 pulses per second, or 2-50 Hz), also adds to the efficacy of PEMF for health treatments.
PEMF Devices vs. MRI
Another way to evaluate the safety of PEMF is to compare it with procedures that have long been used in clinical treatments.
Consider magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is used by radiologists to form pictures of the anatomy and physiological processes within the body.
Aside from certain contraindications, such as implants that can interfere with the exam, MRI machines are proven to be quite safe for most patients.
Regular MRI is known to be safe even for pregnant women and infants.
It is the contrast agent (typically gadolinium) which is used to improve the image quality that poses a risk during pregnancy, not the radiation itself.
Radiologists can review the patient and operate the MRI machine without using contrast material when needed.
PEMF does not require injection of any contrast material, so it is even safer than MRI machines.
Moreover, the intensity of waves in PEMF devices is significantly lower than in MRI machines.
Whereas the intensity of most PEMF devices sold is limited from 0.4 to 0.6 tesla (4000 to 6000 gauss), MRI machines have much stronger waves, with a typical range of 2 to 6 tesla (20,000 to 60,000 gauss).
What Do the Studies Say?
Having established all of this, let’s now move on to specific concerns about the safety of PEMF.
Given that PEMF involves radiation entering your body, it is only reasonable to question whether it can cause harm.
Whether it adversely affects the brain, which controls so much of your health and ability to function, is a common worry.
To answer that question, we have to look no further than repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).
rTMS has been in use since 1985 to treat mood disorders.
As with MRI, patients with metal implants in the head cannot use rTMS therapy without potential risk, but those without these implants rarely experience side effects.
Because the rTMS machine also emits a loud sound, earplugs have to be used, but this is not the case with PEMF devices.
Some patients also report mild headaches and/or uncomfortable twitching, but this side effect typically diminishes soon after the treatment for those who experience it.
As PEMF devices have weaker intensities than an rTMS machine, this does not usually occur.
While some do describe a headache, it is generally tolerable, and does not last long.
One 2006 study looked specifically into the side effects of rTMS by exposing healthy young men to very large numbers of magnetic pulses.
All participants received 12,960 pulses a day for 3 days a week. So, over a period of 8 days, each participant was exposed to 38,880 magnetic pulses.
These subjects did not have health issues to begin with, so it could be evaluated with good accuracy if the treatment had any side effects.
Despite undergoing such intensive treatment, there were no side effects recorded (1). But what about lengthier applications?
The conclusion from many studies still remains the same.
For example, one 2009 study found no side effects in patients who underwent rTMS over the course of an entire year.
In both, the patient who was treated in 70 different sessions (420,000 pulses) and the 7 patients who were treated in 60 sessions (72,000 pulses), experienced no side effects (2).
Such studies also affirm that age is not an important factor in considering PEMF precautions.
In the same longitudinal study, a 75-year-old patient went without any negative reaction through 130 sessions over a total period of two years and two months.
In another, newborn rats were subjected to magnetic pulses, and emerged with enhanced brain cortex development and no unwanted side effects (3).
Another common concern is the likelihood of PEMF triggering seizures.
This is a concern that has persisted even with MRI scanning and rTMS, and now is in question for PEMF devices.
However, the occurrence of a seizure during an MRI or rTMS session is actually quite rare, and may be attributed more to stress or emotional trauma rather than the direct effect of the technologies themselves.
The same may be said about PEMF devices, but as most of them are smaller and can be used comfortably at home, seizures are even rarer.
There are many studies that attest to the safety of PEMF for epileptic patients.
A study published by the American Epilepsy Society has ascertained that not only are seizures unlikely with pulsed radiation, but they can actually be treated with good efficacy via the same method (4).
Many other studies find no change in EEG in patients with epilepsy or partial seizures while undergoing rTMS.
PEMF devices energize cells and promote their survival and performance.
Because of this, some may think that PEMF treatment will serve the same function for cancerous cells.
This is again an unfounded theory, as studies have shown over and over again that PEMF can actually help inhibit cancer cell growth.
PEMF has been shown to cause apoptosis selectively, killing the dangerous cancer cells while supporting healthy cells.
Much scientific evidence is in support of clinical applications of PEMF. But there is a phenomenon that confounds even the medical community: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
As yet, there has been no scientific basis identified for this condition, which is why it is often dismissed.
Yet for the people who claim to suffer from this bizarre sensitivity, they are still experiencing all the debilitating consequences of a disability that is difficult to treat.
If you are someone who suffers from this, first evaluate carefully whether PEMF devices are likely to affect you.
Since PEMF devices usually have low-intensity and low-frequency pulses (often adjustable), it may be that you can use them without much discomfort.
It is a good idea to try several sessions of PEMF first before purchasing a PEMF device for personal use.
If your sensitivity is more acute, then it is best if you avoid PEMF.
Other Precautionary Measures
Despite all of what we have established above, you may still have reason to be wary of using a PEMF device.
This is especially the case for people with implants.
If the object implanted is electrical in nature—such as a pacemaker, a targeted drug delivery pump, a cochlear implant, etc.—make sure that you don’t direct the applicator over the area of the implantation.
The concern with doing that is that the waves might interrupt the function of the implanted device, which could be extremely dangerous and/or inconvenient.
With other kinds of implants—such as rods, stents, mechanical valves, joint replacement plates, etc.—it would be wise to consult your doctor and the manufacturer of the implant before starting PEMF.
If they were only recently implanted, it could be unwise to start PEMF at this time.
Furthermore, it is advisable to use only low to moderate intensity PEMF devices in these cases.
High intensity waves could cause sharp pain around the area of the implant by stimulating the nerves there.
As for breast implants, the use of both high intensity and high frequency (above 100 Hz) are inadvisable.
The integrity of the silicone might deteriorate, or it may start to leak.
Although there is barely any evidence to suggest a risk, there still isn’t enough to confirm a complete lack of risk in using PEMF during pregnancy.
That is why, unless other treatment options are impossible or not working, PEMF should be used only as a last resort.
In any case, if you feel uncomfortable or distressed after PEMF sessions, you should opt for a consultation with a specialist before you continue with your treatment.
PEMF is one of the safest treatment technologies currently available.
It is this that has made it so popular and so promising for scientists and the public alike.
Moreover, it offers a variety of health benefits (from improved sleep to bone/tissue healing to improving mood and more) that you may be able to get from other treatment options but not without side effects (such as with drugs or chemotherapy).
Aside from a few precautionary points to keep in mind, PEMF can be used by anyone and everyone who wants to get treatment or maintain their overall health.