My wife recently had a fiberglass cast removed and was given a metal brace that is strapped on with Velcro. Walking was painful until she put a couple of magnets against the afflicted area under an Ace bandage. Now she is pursuing the optional roller skate attachment to mount on the brace. She claims the magnets have some kind of magical properties that “cancel out” the pain. Do the magnets actually do something, or is the peroxide seeping through her scalp?

–Patrick Colby

I was all set to write this off as the usual New Age BS but figured I should riffle through the journals just in case. What do you know: at least one study claims that magnets produced salubrious results. What next, common cold cured by crystals?

The unexpected results were reported in 1997 by Dr. Carlos Vallbona at Baylor College of Medicine. Fifty patients suffering pain in the aftermath of polio were treated by taping small magnets to the affected parts of their bodies. Twenty-nine patients got real magnets and 21 got fakes. The study was double-blind–neither patients nor staff knew who got the real magnets. The patients rated their pain on a ten-point scale before and after a 45-minute therapy session. The patients with real magnets reported a major decrease in pain (from 9.6 to 4.4 on average), while those with fakes reported much less improvement (from 9.5 to 8.4).

The obvious objections to this study: (1) The investigators had previously reported that magnets relieved their own pain and might have been biased. (2) Double-blind or not, it’s pretty easy to tell a real magnet from a fake one, and some patients may have told the doctors what they wanted to hear. (3) We’re talking about just one study. Previous research into various types of magnetic therapy came up dry.

The real problem with magnetic therapy–and related issues like whether low-level electromagnetic fields have adverse health effects–is that no one’s proposed a plausible physiological explanation for how magnetism does its stuff on the body’s cells. (I don’t mean all that crap in the ads about “negative and positive ion energy levels”; I mean something you could say in the lab without drawing shrieks of laughter.) The chief guru of modern magnetic therapy, Dr. Kyochi Nakagawa of Japan, claims that magnets alleviate “magnetic field deficiency syndrome,” said to result from the diminishing strength of the earth’s magnetic field, which on the plausibility scale rates just above channeling space aliens. You have to be skeptical on general principles–magnets and related therapies have inspired centuries of quackery.

But what the hell, provided you don’t spend too much or fail to see a doctor if you’ve got a serious complaint, wearing magnets won’t do you any harm. Just don’t be surprised if the next study says it was in your head all along.

I’ve heard that rubbing one’s hands on a stainless-steel item under running water removes the smell of garlic. Does this really work, and if so, how?

–Roger, via AOL

I’m as bad as the magnet guys when I say this, but here’s what I found out so far: nobody knows why, but yeah, it seems to work. Based on the usual rigorous home experiments, the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board agrees that stainless steel not only gets rid of garlic smell, it also gets rid of any other kind of smell. This report from Larasaurus: “Stainless steel worked great on garlic smell, yadda yadda. But what was really cool was our friend (and masseur) Jonathan showed up straight from a massage he’d given some icky old guy who wore a lot of icky-old-guy cologne. Jonathan reeked–I mean, reeked–of it. He’d already washed his hands twice, and he washed them again after the smell was still knocking me out and I gave him shit about it. So we had him try the SS treatment. Now, it didn’t totally eliminate the cologne smell, but it reduced the offensivity factor by about ten: you couldn’t smell it unless you were sitting next to Jonathan, instead of across the room from him. True story.”

Theoretical underpinnings for these results are, however, lacking. A couple stabs: (1) The steel acts as an abrasive. Boring but plausible. (2) The nickel in the stainless steel causes ionization, which fools the nose into thinking the smell is gone. You know any explanation containing the word “ionization” has got to be a crock. But that’s all we’ve got for now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.