Do copper bracelets help with arthritis?
Many people say copper wristbands help ease the aches and pains of stiff and sore joints.
It is certainly true that people do say this – even scientific research provides evidence that people taking part in trials sometimes say bracelets help with their pain.
It is also true, however, that online shops and forums use marketing pitches to remind us of this fact that people do sometimes say that copper bracelets help – and people say it for good reason.
But why do people say copper worn around the wrist is beneficial, and how does the evidence stack up?
Do copper bracelets have a beneficial effect, or not – especially for the arthritis pain that people often use them for?
Part of the problem in trying to answer the efficacy question is that copper bracelets almost certainly do no harm, and as they are not drugs or medical devices, there is no regulation of the health claims that are made for them.
Also, to find out if they provide any benefit, there has been only limited research into the use of copper bracelets.
This article will examine the research that has been done into any pain-relieving power – and then explain why copper wristbands are bought for health reasons.
What is the evidence behind the use of copper bracelets?
For the question of what evidence there is for the health effects of copper bracelets, the scientists give a short answer.
- No good evidence that they reduce pain or inflammation
- Fairly good evidence that they do not have any clinical effect.
These conclusions come from the best data out there so far: a widely available scientific comparison of different copper and magnetic bracelets used by people with rheumatoid arthritis, published in 2013.1
This study was designed in such a way that, while it was not a large study, there were enough people taking part and wearing different kinds of bracelets that, should there have been even a minimal clinical improvement of 20 per cent in pain ratings, the study would have found it. There was not.
The trial adds to a previous disappointment about the benefits of wearing metals in this way. A previous study looked at magnetic bracelets. It was the single randomised, placebo-controlled trial on the use of magnet therapy for rheumatoid arthritis that had been conducted before the new experiment on different kinds of bracelet.
Dr. Stewart Richmond, who also led the 2013 study from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, wrote in the published paper for magnetic bracelets: “The results of this trial, which compared strong versus weak magnets strapped to the knee, showed that there was no statistical difference in pain outcomes between experimental and control groups.”
And about the latest findings from comparing copper-only, magnetic and placebo bracelets, Dr. Richmond writes: “It’s a shame that these devices don’t seem to have any genuine benefit. They’re so simple and generally safe to use.”
But he goes on to say that “people who suffer with rheumatoid arthritis may be better off saving their money, or spending it on other complementary interventions, such as dietary fish oils for example, which have far better evidence for effectiveness.”
Using copper bracelets for pain relief
When we see the sales descriptions for copper bracelets, sold within a wider industry for magnetic wristbands estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, we find that the information is often:
- Impressive – “worn for healing by mankind for centuries” or “made from the finest pure copper”
- Accurate – “copper is essential for our bodies” or “the metal has a natural ability to conduct heat.”
But what is the relevance of these two types of information when it comes to any effect against disease? What is the relevance to the human body at all, when copper is worn as a bracelet?
Reputable sellers try not to tie such information to any direct claims for health, and that is because, however impressive or accurate this type of information is, it is not proof of any effect and provides no real promise.
Even when reasonable product statements testify that “many people wear these for health benefits,” or many people say “these work for their condition,” these statements are not necessarily proof of a health benefit.
The limitations of medicine for treating arthritis pain
Another factor of life with aches, pains and inflammation in the joints is that traditional medicine does not offer a completely effective remedy itself – far from it.
Pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in providing us with drugs that can often help control the pain of chronic conditions that leave us wanting for a complete cure. Even when patients know the reality is that a chronic condition cannot yet be cured, they may still hope for something that can at least slow down or halt further disease progress. However, few drugs against chronic conditions succeed on this front.
But researchers and companies marketing the final products are no less prone than anyone else to making bold claims for drugs. However well-regulated the industry is, it can raise the expectations for drugs. In addition, researchers can also get the testing wrong or simply fail to predict some of the safety problems that can arise.
A combination of frustration with a difficult condition and the limits of our own bodies and of doctors, medicine and pharmaceuticals can lead patients to try anything. Sometimes, we reach for the “magical” even before trying the things that might actually work – changes in lifestyle, pain-relieving drugs and even any complementary treatment that has some evidence for its benefits, for example.
Instead, we will probably continue, for as long as copper bracelets are considered harmless, to allow the people selling them to make their claims. “It is believed” that these bracelets “have an anti-inflammatory effect,” go the claims, but without mentioning who believes it or why.
The bracelets’ action is also suggested by statements describing how “the metal reacts with your sweat and may leave a green stain on your skin.” It sounds magical – and of course people should be warned about staining their clothes – but this is the same reaction that turns copper green wherever it becomes exposed.
And it is one of the many truly magical benefits of copper to society – the metal barely corrodes any further once green, and so forms a waterproof covering over the buildings we have been sheltering under for hundreds of years.
In spite of all the science, there may be some benefit from buying copper bracelets, particularly if they are affordable, a patient believes in them and they come to no harm from missing out on other treatment that has been proven to be effective.
Patients should be aware, however, that any perceived physical benefits will be due to the placebo effect rather than the physical properties of copper bracelets.