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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(8):1808

“Ionized” metal wrist bracelets are a popular alternative pain-relief technique. Bratton and colleagues performed a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to assess the effects ionized bracelets have on musculo-skeletal pain.

The manufacturer claims that the bracelets “energize” the body, relieve pain, and balance positive and negative ions for the maintenance of energy flow and, therefore, optimal health. The bracelets used in the study cost $50 each, but some models cost more than three times that much.

The study used identical-appearing ionized-metal and placebo bracelets obtained from the manufacturer. The researchers enrolled 610 patients with self-reported musculoskeletal pain. The mean age was 48 years; 74 percent of participants were women, and approximately 88 percent were white. Participants reported pain in at least one of the following areas: neck, shoulder, elbow, wrists, hands, upper back, mid back, lower back, hips, knees, ankles, or feet. At different times during the four-week study period, patients rated pain for each area on a 10-point scale. Primary end points were the change in pain score at four-week follow-up for the body area with the highest baseline pain score and the change in the sum of pain scores for all body areas.

No differences for either of the end points were observed between the intervention and control groups. However, statistically significant improvements in pain scores were observed in both groups. The authors conclude that there is no benefit in using an ionized wrist bracelet versus a nonionized bracelet for treatment of musculoskeletal pain, but that the subjective improvement observed in both groups indicates the presence of a placebo effect. Notably, 80 percent of 409 participants who answered a question about whether they thought the bracelets would relieve pain gave a positive response.

editor’s note: Treatments deserve the most rigorous scientific scrutiny we can obtain, and alternative treatments are no exception. This study evaluates a manufacturer’s claim, and the conclusions can aid physicians in advising patients who may be inclined to spend money on an ionized metal bracelet. The lack of a comparison group that received no intervention does not allow us to conclude that all bracelets are ineffective. On the contrary, the study shows that a bracelet (ionized or not) will work in patients who believe it will help.—c.c.

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