ISP #30 – Pseudo-Medical Devices

From August 10, 2014. This was a doozy. Full show notes after the cut.

First, the “humanity ain’t so bad” segment. Because without the occasional good news about the world, Jon will just wish for humanity to flush itself down a toilet.

When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. When Canadian 7-year-old Quinn Callender, of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, decided to launch a lemonade stand and a crowdfunding campaign to help his friend Brayden Grozdanich get an expensive surgery, he never could have expected the overwhelming response he received.

Grozdanich, who has cerebral palsy, has been undergoing painful physiotherapy to help him walk, but he now needs surgery to allow him to walk without braces, a surgery only available in New Jersey, his father told the CBC. That’s when Callender stepped in. With the help of his parents, social media and a little water, lemon and sugar, ‘My Buddy Brayden’ was launched. On Sunday, the two boys manned the lemonade stand outside a local grocery store, and needless to say the refreshing drink (and the cause) was a hit. As of Monday, the campaign has already surpassed its $20,000 goal and raised over $48,000.

Pseudo-medical devices


  • Magnet Therapy
    • Products include magnetic bracelets and jewelry; magnetic straps for wrists, ankles, knees, and back; shoe insoles; mattresses; magnetic blankets (blankets with magnets woven into the material); magnetic creams; magnetic supplements; plasters/patches and water that has been “magnetized”.
    • Most of the time, there is no involvement by a physician or any kind of expert, so there’s no way to check to make sure that you’re “using it right.”
    • The American Cancer Society has an extensive page about magnet therapy. Quoting from them:
      • Many claims about magnetic therapy are based on the fact that some cells and tissues in the human body give off electromagnetic impulses. Some practitioners think the presence of illness or injury disrupts these fields. Magnets produce energy fields of different strengths, which proponents believe can penetrate the human body, correcting disturbances and restoring health to the afflicted systems, organs, and cells.
      • Proponents claim magnetic therapy can relieve pain caused by arthritis, headaches, migraine headaches, and stress, and can also heal broken bones, improve circulation, reverse degenerative diseases, and cure cancer. They also claim that placing magnets over areas of pain or disease strengthens the body’s healing ability. Some believe that magnetic fields increase blood flow, alter nerve impulses, increase the flow of oxygen to cells, decrease fatty deposits on artery walls, and realign thought patterns to improve emotional well-being.
      • Proponents of magnetic therapy assert that magnetic fields produced from the negative pole of the magnet have healing powers. Negative magnetic fields are thought to stimulate metabolism, increase the amount of oxygen available to cells, and create a less acidic environment within the body. Because many people who use magnets believe cancer cells cannot thrive when acid is low, they claim that the effects of negative magnetic fields can halt or reverse the spread of tumors by decreasing acidity. For the same reasons, they believe that negative magnetic fields speed the healing of cuts, broken bones, and infections, and that they counter the effects of toxic chemicals, addictive drugs, and other harmful substances.
      • A 16th century physician, Paracelsus, thought that because magnets attract iron they might attract and eliminate diseases from the body. In the Middle Ages, doctors used magnets to treat gout, arthritis, poisoning, and baldness.
      • The modern version of magnet therapy reportedly began in the 1970s, when researcher Albert Roy Davis, PhD, noticed that positive and negative magnetic charges had different effects on human biological systems. He claimed that magnets could kill cancer cells in animals and could also cure arthritis pain, glaucoma, infertility, and other conditions. Magnetic therapy has become a large industry in the United States and Europe and has been used widely in Japan and China for many years.
      • Most of the success stories have come from a few isolated sources that have not provided proof that the treatment actually works. One small but well-publicized 1997 randomized clinical trial conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine reported that small magnets reduced pain in people who had recovered from polio. However, several problems in the study’s methods were observed (for example, the patients in the two groups differed in ways that might influence their susceptibility to placebo effects). In addition, the study only looked at very short-term results and was intended to be a pilot study. Pilot studies are done only to decide whether it is worthwhile to do larger studies. To date, large studies have not been done.
      • To test the claim of improved blood flow, one study compared magnets and otherwise identical nonmagnetic disks on the arms of healthy volunteers. The researchers measured blood flow and found no difference between the real and fake magnets.
      • Clinical trials of static magnets for pain relief have generally had mixed results. One review noted that about half the studies found that magnets improved pain, and the other half did not. However, it has been difficult to conduct studies that can account for the placebo effect when using magnets. Patients are generally able to tell whether their bracelet or patch is magnetic, as real magnets attract metal objects like paper clips. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has also reviewed the data and stated that scientific evidence does not support use of magnets for pain relief. Studies of electromagnets, which have stronger magnetic fields, appear to be more promising.
      • [The ACS is] not aware of any published clinical studies involving magnets as an anti-cancer treatment and know of only one study specifically involving cancer survivors. Researchers from the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing placed either magnets or nonmagnetic (placebo) objects at six acupressure points of breast cancer survivors suffering from hot flashes. The magnets were no more effective in reducing hot flash severity and turned out to be less effective than the fake magnets in decreasing hot-flash frequency, bother, interference with daily activities, and overall quality of life.
      • The FDA has not approved the marketing of magnets with claims of health benefits. In fact, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have taken action against several makers and sellers of magnets because they were making health claims that had not been proven.
    • Per Wikipedia:
      • Several studies have been conducted in recent years to investigate what role, if any, static magnetic fields may play in health and healing. Unbiased studies of magnetic therapy are problematic, since magnetisation can be easily detected, for instance, by the attraction forces on ferrous (iron-containing) objects; because of this, effective blinding of studies (where neither patients nor assessors know who is receiving treatment versus placebo) is difficult. Incomplete or insufficient blinding tends to exaggerate treatment effects, particularly where any such effects are small. Health claims regarding longevity and cancer treatment are implausible and unsupported by any research. More mundane health claims, most commonly about anecdotal pain relief, also lack any credible proposed mechanism and clinical research is not promising.
      • The most common suggested mechanism is that magnets might improve blood flow in underlying tissues. But the field of magnet therapy devices is far too weak and falls off in strength with the square of the distance, making it totally unable to affect hemoglobin or other parts of the blood, muscle tissue, bones, blood vessels, or organs. A 1991 study on humans using static field strengths up to 1T found no effect on local blood flow.
    • Which is a damn good thing. Most magnetic therapy devices use ferrite magnets instead, which have a field strength of about 0.35T. For comparison, the magnetic field in the Earth’s outer core is calculated to be about 0.0025T, which is 50 times as strong as the field at the surface; your typical neodymium-iron-boron magnet has a field strength of about 1.25T; and an MRI magnet’s field is typically 1.5T to 3T. So if these therapies actually worked to affect your blood or bones or organs or whatever… an MRI would probably destroy you.
    • But it’s not all doom and gloom. There may be some light at the end of the magnetic tunnel after all. The American Cancer Society says:
      • Principles of magnetism have been applied very successfully in conventional medicine to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses magnetic fields to produce detailed pictures of the body without the use of x-rays. Researchers are working on additional medical uses based on magnetism, such as attaching anti-cancer drugs to the surface of microscopic magnetic particles that can be guided to a tumor by strong magnets outside the body. Another possibility is particles that generate enough heat to kill cancer cells in the presence of some kinds of magnetic field.
    • So while current magnet therapies are clearly bunk, there is some hope for getting real medical use out of magnets eventually.
  • “Power Balance” and similar ‘devices’
    • Power Balance is a brand of hologram bracelets once claimed by its manufacturers and vendors to “use holographic technology” to “resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”, and increase sporting ability. They initially denied that they made any medical or scientific claims about their products, and numerous independent studies of the device found it to be ineffective for enhancing athletic performance.
      • Some nuts over at the David Icke forum discussed this back in 2010. They said such hilarious things as:
        • It contains sacred geometry.. So there is definitely something to it..
        • [responding to an actual skeptic saying they were making unprovable nonsense claims about energy fields:] Energy fields are not unproveable nonsense , you are way behind the times. [followed by a link to a reiki practitioner’s website]
    • Here’s what the company itself claims (or claimed, back in 2010):
      • What is Power Balance?
      • Power Balance is Performance Technology designed to work with your body’s natural energy field. Founded by athletes, Power Balance is a favorite among elite athletes for whom balance, strength and flexibility are important.
      • How Does the Hologram Work?
      • Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body
    • The company has been the focus of significant criticism, particularly for false advertising. It has been described in the press as “like the tooth fairy” and a “very successful marketing scam”.
      • In November 2010, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Complaints Resolution Panel ordered them to drop “false and misleading” claims that the wearers would experience “up to a 500% increase in strength, power and flexibility”, and ordered the claims removed from the company’s website and a retraction posted within two weeks.
      • The next month, after an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruling, the Australian distributor of Power Balance was forced to recognize and retract their medical claims. They were required to make the following statement on their website admitting they “engaged in misleading conduct”:
      • “In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologize and offer a full refund.”
      • The ruling required that they:
        • publish, at their own expense, corrective advertisements,
        • cease to claim that the products
          • will improve the user’s balance, strength and flexibility; or
          • are “designed to work with the body’s natural energy field”;
          • nor, in conjunction with the Products, make claims that “Power Balance is Performance Technology” or use the phrase “Performance Technology”,
        • cease to manufacture or import products containing the words “Performance Technology”,
        • black out the words “Performance Technology” on their packaging,
        • replace their promotional and marketing material, and
        • offer full refunds, plus postage.
      • In December 2010 Italy’s Antitrust Authority fined Power Balance 300,000 euros (and another company 50,000 euros) for not having scientific proof of the claims made.
      • In September 2010, the Dutch Advertising Code Commission ruled that the distributor of Power Balance in the Netherlands “claims on its website that the use of the Power Balance Bracelet improves balance, strength and agility. These allegations are not backed with any single (scientific) evidence. The plaintiff believes that this method of advertising is in conflict with the Dutch Advertising Code (NRC) as the link between wearing the bracelet and the health of the wearer has not been determined in any way.” The effect was pretty weak, though – they just “recommend[ed the] advertiser not to advertise in such a way anymore.”
      • In January 2011, a suit was filed against the company for fraud, false advertising, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. Power Balance agreed in September 2011 to settle the class action lawsuit. The settlement terms entitled Power Balance purchasers to a full $30 refund plus $5 shipping. A hearing to finalize the agreement was canceled after Power Balance filed for Chapter 11 protection.
      • By the end of 2011 the company was reported to be on the edge of going out of business having paid out $57m to settle lawsuits, in the course of which company executives acknowledged that their claims to improve strength and balance were bogus. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and subsequently failed altogether, but the brand has been transferred to a new company, Power Balance Technologies.
    • The science:
      • In December 2009, an informal double-blind test was performed on the Australian television program Today Tonight, led by Richard Saunders from the Australian Skeptics. The results showed strong evidence that any effect of the holograms is too small to measure against the placebo effect.
      • In 2010, researchers commissioned by the BBC also found that the bands were placebos.
      • In 2011, researchers from RMIT’s School of Health Sciences reported the results of an independent, randomized and controlled trial with double blind design. To no skeptic’s surprise, they found no difference in balance between people using a real holographic wristband and those wearing a placebo.
      • A 2012 Skeptical Inquirer study showed that in a double-blind test of performance on an obstacle course, sixteen volunteers showed a difference in performance no greater than chance.
      • In 2013, a group of Vanguard University students skeptical of the claims conducted a test which showed “no significant difference between the real wristband and the fake”.
      • To sum this all up, there really is nothing going on here. All the testing found them to be placebos, and even the people behind the company admitted it was nonsense.
    • Talk about the trickery involved in the balance/strength testing
    • also the “charged with negative ions” shit. I’ve had to have that discussion before. (Ooh, sciency words! It must be true!)
    • Imitations have flooded the market. All you need to do is Google ‘power balance imitation’ and you’ll find hundreds.
      • One of the more hilarious ones is basically a USB cable with a male and a female end that plugs into itself to close around your wrist. That’s technology, folks!
      • Placebo Bands:
        • Travis Roy of Granite State Skeptics and The Skeptic Zone Podcast has teamed up with Christopher Brown of the Meet The Skeptics Podcast to bring Placebo Bands to North America! $4 will get you a product made in exactly the same way as a $40 Power Balance bracelet, even made in the same factory.
        • US:
        • Canada:
        • Absolutely no medical claims are made… they’re just a way to make a skeptical statement.
    • One of the funniest pieces of coverage I’ve seen on Power Balance bands comes a couple of posts on Nathan Lee’s blog. Go check them out.

Dr. Albert Abrams

  • Albert Abrams (1863–1924) was an American doctor, well known during his life for inventing machines which he claimed could diagnose and cure almost any disease. These claims were challenged from the outset. Towards the end of his life, and again shortly after his death, his claims were conclusively demonstrated to be both false and intentionally deceptive.
  • Abrams promoted an idea that electrons were the basic element of all life. He called this ERA, for Electronic Reactions of Abrams, and introduced a number of different machines which he claimed were based on these principles.
  • The machines:
    • The Dynomizer looked something like a radio, and Abrams claimed it could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood or alternatively the subject’s handwriting. He performed diagnoses on dried blood samples sent to him on pieces of paper in envelopes through the mail. Apparently Abrams even claimed he could conduct medical practice over the telephone with his machines,[11] and that he could determine personality characteristics.
    • The Dynomizer was big business; by 1918, courses in spondylotherapy and ERA cost $200 (about the same purchasing power as $2,800 in 2008); equipment was leased at about $200 with a monthly $5 charge thereafter. The lessee had to sign a contract stating the device would never be opened.[12] Abrams explained that this would disrupt their delicate adjustment, but the rule also served to prevent the Abrams devices from being examined. He then widened his claims to treating the diagnosed diseases. Abrams came up with new and even more impressive gadgets, the “Oscilloclast”[13] and the “Radioclast”,[14] which came with tables of frequencies that were designed to “attack” specific diseases. Clients were told cures required repeated treatments.
    • Dynomizer operators tended to give alarming diagnoses, involving combinations of such maladies as cancer, diabetes and syphilis. Abrams often included a disease called “bovine syphilis,” unknown to other medical practitioners. He claimed the Oscilloclast was capable of defeating most of these diseases, most of the time.
    • By 1921, there were claimed to be 3,500 practitioners using ERA technology. Conventional medical practitioners were extremely suspicious.[15]
  • A public uproar:
    • In 1923, an elderly man who was diagnosed in the Mayo Clinic with inoperable stomach cancer went to an ERA practitioner, who declared him “completely cured” after treatments. The man died a month later and a public uproar followed.
  • Investigation:
    • The dispute between Abrams and his followers and the American Medical Association (AMA) was intensified. Defenders included American radical author Upton Sinclair[16] and the famously credulous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Resolution of the dispute through the intervention of a scientifically respected third party was pursued. Scientific American magazine decided to investigate Dr. Abrams’ claims. Scientific American was interested in the matter as readers were writing letters to the editor saying that Abrams’ revolutionary machines were one of the greatest inventions of the century and so needed to be discussed in the pages of the magazine.
    • Scientific American assembled a team of investigators who worked with a senior Abrams associate given the pseudonym “Doctor X”. The investigators developed a series of tests and the magazine asked readers to suggest their own tests. The investigators asked Doctor X to identify six vials containing unknown pathogens. It seems likely that Doctor X honestly believed in his Abrams machines; in fact, he allowed the Scientific American investigators to observe his procedure. Doctor X got the contents of all six vials completely wrong. He examined the vials and pointed out that they had labels in red ink, which produced vibrations that confounded the instruments. The investigators gave him the vials again with less offensive labels, and he got the contents wrong again.
    • The results were published in Scientific American.[17] and led to a predictable debate in the letters pages between advocates and critics. The investigators continued their work. Abrams offered to “cooperate” with the investigators, but always failed to do so on various pretexts.[18] Abrams never actually participated in the investigation, and in ERA publications asserted he was a victim of unjust persecution.[19]

Vibrators used as a cure for “Female Hysteria”

  • I’m not sure that the science is in on this one. I might need to research it … extensively. To do this properly we will need a large subject group. If you wish to volunteer contact feedback@irreverentskeptics,com.
  • Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”. In extreme cases, the woman would be forced into the asylum and undergo surgical hysterectomy.
  • But ironically, women’s sexual pleasure was the furthest thing from the minds of the male doctors who invented vibrators almost two centuries ago. They were interested in a labor-saving device to spare their hands the fatigue they developed giving handjobs to a steady stream of 19th century ladies who suffered from “hysteria,” a vaguely defined ailment easily recognizable today as sexual frustration. Therein hangs a strange tale that provides quirky insights into both the history of sex toys, and cultural notions about women’s sexuality.

Foot Operated Breast Enlarger Pump

  • So this product from 1976 was a system where one would place essentially vacuum suction cups over their breasts and use a foot pump to “enlarge” the breasts. It had three different sizes, all large.
  • four million people bought this device. FOUR MILLION. Using an online calculator to figure the difference, today that device would cost $41.99, approximately. So the total spent in today’s dollars on this device? Over $167 million!! That’s a lot of tit pump money.. That was the low end cost. There was a program which included a book, some kind of herbal rub(?) idk. That was valued at $79.95 + $7.95 shipping & handling.
  • I might need to switch businesses.
  • According to the US Food & Drug Administration: “ For decades, million of dollars have been spent on devices, creams and lotions advertised as breast developers. All wasted. There is no device or system of exercise that will increase the size of the breasts. At best, devices promoted as breast developers merely strengthen and develop the muscles that support the breasts, and exercising these muscles will not appreciably increase breast size.”

Bloodletting Devices

  • This might not quite qualify as quackery since at the time, no one really knew any better. That said, when medical science was still centered on the Four Humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, bloodletting was a popular way to treat all manner of maladies. Purging, starving, vomiting or bloodletting were the cures of the day.
  • There were a number of devices used to draw blood. A spring loaded lancet, which pretty much looks like an earlier version of a modern lancet. The modern ones are still spring loaded even. They’re used for pricking the skin for testing blood sugar, for instance. The more ancient version we’re talking about here though? It would drive the lancet into a vein! LE FUCK.
  • There were non-spring loaded versions of the lancet. Some were just forced into the flesh manually, while others were tapped with a hammer or similar tool.
  • Now here’s the juicy one. The Scarificator. It was a vogue 18th Century device. The device is cocked and the trigger released spring-driven rotary blades which caused many shallow cuts. The article I read about it said that is seemed the more merciful of the devices listed, but I don’t know. It looks pretty fucking brutal to me.
  • I’m betting there’s a similar device in use today for bdsm parties… 0_o
  • Theodoric of York – Medieval Barber bit on SNL.


Listener Feedback

From James P.

Dear Irreverent Skeptics

Have you heard of the Podcast “The Higherside Chats“. It is a conspiracy podcast, it very bad, almost as good as “Coast to Coast Am”

Links and Attributions

Museum of Quackery

Female Hysteria

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