The Magnetic Draw of Pulse Electro Magnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)

By: Nikki Alvin-Smith 

If you are puzzling over the use of PEMF as a therapy for use on horses, you are not alone. The process of directing powerful pulsed energy waves toward injury sites in your horse’s body is becoming increasingly popular, despite its expense and the questions that authorities such as the New York Racing Commission have highlighted, resulting in their ban of its use by anyone other than a qualified veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician across New York racetracks. 

Since it takes virtually no training to operate the simple on/off and intensity controls of most PEMF machines, assigning the task to unskilled workers such as grooms is easy. However, as a treatment period of up to an hour is generally noted for optimal results, busy veterinarians at New York racetracks will have to allow considerable time to cut from their workday to attend to these new requirements for PEMF use on horses.

When we think of electromagnetic fields, our minds may wander to the trending health concerns related to using the incoming 5G network for cell phone users and the health risks associated with electromagnetic fields (EMF). Indeed, technicians and others using the PEMF protocol on horses have also noted a myriad of side effects similar to those experienced by humans subjected to exposure to EMF from using the PEMF devices. 

During use, operators, and even those in nearby proximity to the PEMF horse therapy machines, such as the newer popping coil applicator or the blanket-style devices, have reported nausea, headaches, worsening pain, and light-headedness. As horses can’t talk, the diligent horse owner might question what adverse effects these machines have on their charges and whether any potential positive benefits of their use outweigh the possible detrimental impact on the health of the horse and operator and others in the vicinity of the treatment.

How does PEMF work, and is it truly a therapy? Or is it simply an analgesic that disguises the horse’s pain without providing healing benefits to the injury? 

What does scientific evidence suggest, and what do manufacturers say about their PEMF machines?

Deborah Powell of Matrix Therapy Products, a company that specializes in equine microcurrent and other complementary therapies, talked about PEMF-manufactured devices:

“Phillipson, a European manufacturer of PEMF, stated that machines that make a popping noise use spark gap, or air gap, a technology which discharges high energies extremely fast, and suggested noticeable attributes of this type of PEMF machine include the undesirable side effects of muscle contractions. Phillipson explained, ‘The only effect these devices have is an analgesic effect similar to strong painkillers, and they do not treat the underlying cause of pain. This mostly leads to the wrong conclusion that these machines are real therapy devices.’”

It is essential to understand that not all PEMF devices and uses are created equal. In studies conducted so far, using PEMF in humans benefits the patient and aids healing. However, these administrations of PEMF have been at a much lower level of the Gauss range. Gauss is the unit of measurement used to define magnetic flux densities. 

Powell explained the difference in PEMF use between horses and humans:

“Most studies for the therapeutic benefit of PEMF in people tend to reflect uses in the 4-200 gauss range, whereas certain PEMF units manufactured for use in horses indicate that horse models range up to 19,200 gauss. If PEMF is to be considered a holistic therapy and not simply an analgesic, studies of the specifications of PEMF devices used on horses and their actual effects need to be instituted.”

Indeed, there is controversy over using the PEMF machines on horses across the horse industry. 

“Equine versions of PEMF have gained popularity as the new ‘one size fits all’ therapy and appears to be the replacement for shockwave and radial pulse machines that were once widely used on the backstretch for a pre-race analgesic effect on horses,” explained Powell. “And vets and horse trainers are on both sides of the fence over PEMF use, for and against.“ 

Powell quoted several other professionals who have expressed concerns. For example: 
Karen Hanna, a NY therapist and racehorse owner, is OK with the ban and said, ‘None of the veterinarians I know and work with use PEMF.’ 

Kathy Kirby, a traveling track therapist in KY, said, ‘I’ve noticed good therapists that wouldn’t touch it started using PEMF not to lose their clients believing their other therapies were more beneficial to the horse’s wellbeing.’  

Powell added: “There are not many folks who are outspoken on the subject of PEMF, but it was refreshing to see veterinarian and owner-breeder Dr. Russell Cohen’s comments in the article Equine Therapy in Cross Hairs, ‘I don’t think there’s a place for any of these things. If you like these animals and breed them and race them as I do, you’re not going to put this on your horse.’”

The magnetic draw of the seemingly ‘quick fix’ will doubtless still pull horse trainers, owners, and medical professionals to use PEMF both now and in the future. The choice is still one of conscience. In the opinion of Powell, studies to define how safe PEMF technology is for use in equine medicine and detailed benefits and drawbacks of its use are needed.