If you live with the chronic pain of arthritis, you’d do just about anything to get pain relief. The CDC reports that one in four people with arthritis experiences severe joint pain, and nearly half of those with arthritis have persistent pain. So if you heard that you could feel better simply by wearing a lovely piece of jewelry — an “arthritis bracelet” — you’d give it a shot, right?
What Are Arthritis Bracelets, Exactly?
Wearing therapeutic copper or magnetic bracelets to ease ailments is nothing new; the practice may even date all the way back to ancient times. Copper is an essential trace mineral in your body that helps form red blood cells and keep your bones healthy. The theory behind wearing it as a bracelet is so miniscule amounts of copper can rub off on your skin and go directly into your bloodstream to boost your body’s copper stores, which ostensibly could relieve arthritis symptoms. A similar theory relates to static magnets, whose magnetic field is thought to attract molecules in the body and possibly improve circulation.
Recently, the trend of wearing copper to treat arthritis has exploded, with bracelets marketed to arthritis patients, insoles for shoes, and even arthritis gloves (which have been shown to help) getting a boost of copper or magnets.
But Do Arthritis Bracelets Actually Work?
No: Science simply doesn’t back up the effectiveness of copper or metal bracelets for arthritis. “It is thought that copper and magnets may help reduce pain and inflammation from arthritis,” says rheumatologist Nilanjana Bose, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and a member of the American College of Rheumatology. “Not a substantiated theory in my opinion. Research has not shown any benefit with use of copper or magnets for arthritic pain.”
Occupational therapist Karen Jacobs, EdD, OT, OTR, CPE, FAOTA, who works with arthritis patients on a regular basis, also doesn’t recommend them. “With copper bracelets, there isn’t any evidence research to support its use,” says Jacobs, who is also a clinical professor at Boston University. “A search of the evidence literature does not indicated that wearing a copper bracelet reduces pain and swelling.”
Here’s what the science found. About five years ago, the first randomized controlled study to assess copper bracelets and magnetic wrist straps was conducted by researchers at the University of York in the UK. Seventy rheumatoid arthritis patients with symptoms wore either copper, magnet, or placebo bracelets over a five-month period and reported on how they felt; they were also given blood tests to check inflammation levels. The results: Neither the copper nor the magnets were any more effective than the placebo. An earlier study by the same researchers found the same results for the use of copper and magnets among people with osteoarthritis.
Although static magnets have some more research behind them, the results are still inconclusive, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, says the available evidence doesn’t support using them for pain relief.
But some people with arthritis do anecdotally report getting a benefit from wearing arthritis bracelets. “This may be more of a placebo effect, which can be very powerful in some patients,” Dr. Bose says. In addition, if you start wearing the bracelets during a flare and then your symptoms subside, you may attribute the improvement to the bracelet, when really it was just good timing.
Can It Hurt to Try Arthritis Bracelets?
On the other hand, unless you are allergic to copper (or in the case of magnets, have a metal implant or medical device like a pacemaker) there aren’t negative side effects of wearing arthritis bracelets as a complement to the treatment plan your doctor recommends. So if your doctor approves you wearing one, you can go ahead. “I tell my patients that they may use copper as there is likely no harm but I cannot specifically advise them on their use since there is no scientific data to back this up,” Dr. Bose says. Plus, because some aspects of pain may be in part psychological, if the placebo effect helps you get relief, in a sense it is actually working.
Still, the bracelets cost money, and if it comes down to choosing between home therapies, you’re better off sticking with those that have proven benefit behind them.
“I recommend a healthy diet — avoiding red meat and refined carbohydrates — like a Mediterranean diet, regular low-impact aerobic exercise, and mind-body relaxation like meditation, deep breathing, or yoga to promote a healthy lifestyle, which can in turn help arthritis pain and progression,” Dr. Bose says. In addition, “pain relief gels or creams may be used as needed.”
In general, it’s best to talk with your doctor about any alternative remedies you’ve heard about and want to try. Just because you’ve heard something works doesn’t mean it has the scientific research to back it up. Unproven therapies should also never replace conventional medicine. In the case of copper or magnetic arthritis bracelets, although no harm can generally come from wearing them, unfortunately there isn’t evidence that they actually work.