“PEMF therapy”. Maybe you’ve heard about it from your aunt, who can't stop gushing about the massive reductions in pain she’s experienced since starting on PEMF therapy, or perhaps you came across the term on an article covering sports rehabilitation. No matter which, your interest was piqued.
What is it? How does it work? And, most importantly, does PEMF therapy really work? Yep, that’s a lot of questions. But don’t worry; this article provides answers to every one of them.
PEMF Therapy 101
Short for “pulsed electromagnetic field therapy”, PEMF therapy – naturally – involves applying electromagnetic (EM) energy to the body. For the uninitiated, EM energy travels in waves. It spans a broad spectrum, from very long radio waves (used in communication technologies) to very short gamma rays (used in radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells).
At this point, you may be wondering: “So, where does PEMF therapy stand on the EM spectrum?” Great question. Well, while the exact frequency used in PEMF therapy can vary according to its use (e.g., bone fracture or pain management?), it is generally less than 100 Hz.
That makes it a low-frequency field, which means worries you likely had about it producing heat – “cooking” you from the inside out – or damaging body cells are unfounded.
But wait. Just because PEMF therapy isn't harmful doesn't necessarily mean that it's good for you … right? Nope. As it turns out, there’s a growing body of evidence supporting PEMF therapy’s effectiveness in stimulating a cascade of repair activities within the body – thus, highlighting its potential as a non-invasive, safe option in rehabilitation treatment.
Does PEMF Therapy Work?
Then again, to quote Charles Bukowski, “Potential doesn’t mean a thing”. So what does the research say about PEMF therapy's effectiveness in real-life, in people dealing with slow-healing bone fractures or, say, chronic pain (e.g., knee osteoarthritis)? In other words: does PEMF therapy work?
The short of it is, yes, it does. But for the long of it, you’ll have to continue reading – the following section dives right into the ins and outs of PEMF therapy's evidence-based benefits. All studies referenced and included, so you know it's all based on credible research.
PEMF therapy benefits
#1: Facilitates Healing In Bone Fractures
Should you fracture a bone in an arm or leg, and it fails to heal within six months, there’s a good chance that your orthopedic surgeon would prescribe PEMF therapy. And for a good reason.
It works – and, better still, without the typical complications seen with surgery (currently the preferred treatment option for slow-healing fractures), including neurovascular damage, infection, or implant-related problems. Numerous studies have consistently reported PEMF therapy’s efficacy in non-healing fractures, with overall healing rates ranging from 68% to 90%.
Take this 2013 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, for instance. Here, researchers randomly assigned 58 long-bone, non-healing fracture patients into two groups: the first group underwent PEMF therapy, while the second underwent a “sham treatment” (i.e., placebo). The results? At the end of the study, participants treated with PEMF therapy for an average of 4.8 months saw a success rate of 77.4%. This was significantly higher than those who’d received the “sham treatment” for an average duration of 4.4 months – and experienced a success rate of 48.1%.
Wondering how, exactly, PEMF therapy works to encourage bone healing? Here's the thing. Despite its clinical use, scientists still aren't sure of its mechanisms of action on the skeleton. Yet.
However, one leading theory is that the electromagnetic waves mimic the action of mechanical stress on bones – forcing osteocytes (a specific type of bone cell) to kickstart numerous complex signaling pathways involving growth factors, calcium ions, and cytokines required for bone regeneration.
#2: Reduces Pain In Musculoskeletal Disorders
Beyond facilitating bone healing, research also shows PEMF therapy as an effective, non-invasive method to treat pain – by lowering inflammation levels – in musculoskeletal (MSK) diseases. To understand the significance, some background knowledge on MSK pain would help.
So, here’s what you need to know. MSK pain is defined as acute or chronic pain that affects bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. For example, lower back pain, knee pain, and even fibromyalgia.
MSK pain is a common medical and socioeconomic problem worldwide. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20% to 33% of the world’s population has some form of chronic MSK pain. That translates to 1.75 billion people! And amongst them, many will opt for pain relief in the form of medications (e.g., NSAIDs and opioids).
But unfortunately, while these do indeed help with the pain, they're not without side effects. NSAIDs, for instance, are known to increase the risk of gastrointestinal (GI bleeding), myocardial infarction, and stroke. Long-term opioid use, on the other hand, is associated with an increased risk for overdose, fractures, and myocardial infarction.
So, back to PEMF therapy. Do you now see its appeal as a pain management tool for MSK disorders? If you do, you're not alone. Researchers have been hard at work looking into electromagnetic waves' effect on many MSK disorders, from low back pain to plantar fasciitis to shoulder impingement syndrome. And guess what? Nearly all studies support PEMF therapy’s pain reduction benefits.
Very briefly: a 2013 study published in Rheumatology International concluded that PEMF therapy could produce a rapid and substantial pain reduction in knee osteoarthritis; a 2014 study published in the Journal of Magnetics found that participants with low back pain treated with PEMF therapy experienced significantly greater pain relief compared to those who were not.
#3: Promotes Muscle Repair
Post-workout muscle soreness, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is a common reaction to exercise. This is especially so for activities with a heavy focus on eccentric contractions (i.e., where you’re exerting force while a particular muscle is lengthened) – including strength training, running downhill, or landing from a jump in basketball.
That’s because eccentric contractions tend to cause more microtears to the muscle fibers. These microtears, in turn, cause pain and usher in inflammation. The pain usually develops between 12 and 24 hours after your workout and can last anywhere between three and five days.
Still, expected as it is, there's no denying that DOMS can be annoying. Getting too sore after a workout is not only painful but can also be counterproductive to your fitness goals since you may find yourself skipping a few sweat sessions thanks to the discomfort. Well, that’s where PEMF therapy comes in to save the day.
By promoting blood flow throughout the body, PEMF therapy could clear blood lactate accumulation and “speed up” the delivery of nutrients (e.g., amino acids) and oxygen to the healing muscle tissues. And the faster your muscles heal, the quicker you’ll feel better – and go back to leading an active lifestyle.
Research agrees. According to this 2015 study published in Physical Therapy in Sport, for instance, researchers concluded PEMF therapy to be effective in reducing the physiological deficits associated with DOMS, including improved recovery of perceived muscle soreness (in the biceps brachii). A later 2018 study published in Orthopaedic Proceedings also found that PEMF therapy can reduce DOMS in the quadriceps following a marathon race.
PEMF Therapy Side Effects
After learning of PEMF therapy’s benefits, you might have caught yourself questioning, “Is there a catch?” After all, you know what they say: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Luckily, that adage doesn't seem to apply here.
A review of the current scientific literature reveals no serious side effects of PEMF therapy. Instead, the side effects are usually mild – including hypersensitivity, rash, tingling, burning sensation, hypotension, and pain. So, in general, PEMF therapy is considered a safe treatment method.