Electromagnetic (EM) waves are real, and living organisms are electrical on some level. Electrical and magnetic stimulation is also used in legitimate medical diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. But it is also true that dubious health claims for magnetic fields or electromagnetic waves is a two century old snake oil scam. Magnetic fields seem like magic and advanced science at the same time, and they also seem gentle and non-invasive and yet there is a whiff of plausibility to them. This is a perfect formula for snake oil.
I wrote previously about pulsed electromagnetic fields (EMF) and some of the dubious claims made for them. Another questionable product has come to my attention, the BEMER blanket (based on the more general BEMER effect, for “Bio-Electro-Magnetic-Energy-Regulation”), or BEMER mattress. You can find complaints online about relatives dropping $6,000 for a mattress that will claim all the usual alternative medicine vague claims, but most specifically to increased “microcirculation”. There are many red flags for a dubious CAM product, starting with the fact that it is sold as an MLM product, with customers becoming distributors.
The basic claim is that pulsed electromagnetic fields increases microcirculation – blood flow through capillaries and small vessels. Also, it is supposed to increase white blood cells circulating in the blood. The “increases circulation” claim is always a red flag, as it is a common one with snake oil products. The history of this claim and BEMER also does not fill me with confidence. But let’s review what is published first.
BEMER, proposed by Dr. Rainer Klopp from Germany in 1998. In the last 25 years there has been precious little published about the technique, which is suspicious in itself. What few studies I can find are preliminary, of low quality, or just negative. For example, this is the only study I could find addressing the core claim, of increased circulation. They compared cutaneous blood flow as measured by doppler in healthy subjects, with one leg being treated with the BEMER blanket and the other leg serving as a blinded control. The one good thing about this claim is that it is really easy to blind, with a placebo blanket that simply does not emit EMF. They found:
Comparing both groups, the measurement values during the experiment did not differ (p > 0.05) except for higher flow values in the control group (P = 0.03). Over time, baseline values of both groups showed no significant difference (p > 0.05).
There was no difference in the two groups. This is pretty damning evidence against the core claim of the BEMER effect. Of course, there is often statistical noise in such studies, and in this case the control group had higher blood flow. So if anything BEMMER decreased blood flow in this study, although I doubt this is a real effect.
For clinical applications, there is also a double blind placebo controlled trial of BEMMER treatment in fibromyalgia – dead negative.
Bemmer blankets are also sold for horses, and I found one study looking at potential physiological measures in horses. They found:
After two weeks of treatment, although not statistically significant, hematocrit (%) measured immediately post exercise was lower in horses undergoing BEMER® treatment (48.30% ± 3.21) than both No blanket (51.15% ± 3.57) and Placebo blanket (49.58% ± 5.77). While wearing BEMER® blanket and after treatment, horses had a lower LF/HF ratio compared to other groups, although this difference was not statistically significant. These results possibly suggest an effect of BEMER® therapy on vagal activity and relaxation.
This is also dead negative – no statistically significant difference. But they try to spin non significant trends as meaning something. LF/HF refers to low frequency/high frequency, which refers to heart rate variability. This is dubious itself, in my opinion. This does not mean there is nothing to heart rate variability, but it is a noisy system easily exploited to create the false impression of a result, and the significance of LF/HF ratio is “controversial”.
There are a few other studies, mostly small and looking at subjective outcomes. A clear pattern is that the objective outcomes measures are always negative. There is not much to show for a treatment that has been around for 25 years. The studies are mostly preliminary, small, pilot studies, with the best studies being negative. And yet the claims made for the BEMER products are glowing and expansive. This is a clear pattern of pseudoscience.
The company also makes some red-flag questionable claims. First, they refer to the “BEMER Institute”. Some good detective work tried to track down this institute, and found that it didn’t exist. The “Institute” was simply Dr. Klopp, with the various addresses being given over the years was simply his address. There was never any research labs or hard infrastructure – it was entirely a virtual entity. The “institute of one” is a common feature of such dubious claims, making them seem more legitimate than they are.
BEMER also claims that they are collaborating with NASA, and explicitly state that this proves the legitimacy of their technology. They claim they are developing a space suit with NASA to improve the health of astronauts. However, I could find zero mention of this collaboration on the NASA website. There is no NASA press release announcing the collaboration (which is standard procedure for NASA). Just like the “institute”, this collaboration with NASA seems to be a “phantom”. In my experience, what organizations selling snake oil have done in the past is use some superficial relationship with NASA – giving a lecture, for example – and then portraying that as NASA endorsing their claims. NASA, however, appears completely silent on BEMER.
Some distributors of BEMER also claim that their products are “FDA Approved”, although the BEMER website is more accurate in saying that it is “FDA cleared”. We have discussed this as well – the FDA “clears” medical devices, which simply is verification that they are not directly harmful to patients. That’s it. They are not going to short out and deliver a fatal shock to the user. There is no requirement for any evidence of efficacy, and the FDA is not making any claim at all about the underlying technology and the medical claims. But most consumers don’t know this, and they are encouraged to interpret “FDA cleared” as if it means the FDA has signed off on the clinical claims.
The BEMER technology, the idea that pulsed EMF somehow increases circulation, and the clinical claims for its products have all the red flags of pseudoscientific snake oil. What little clinical research there is also displays a pattern of results very familiar to SBM – consistent with the null hypothesis, that the claims are not true. Certainly no one has scientifically validated the claims with high quality and reproducible clinical research. You will also notice that BEMER remains on the fringe, surviving in the world of CAM, without gaining mainstream acceptance – because the claims are dubious and the evidence is lacking.