Until a few decades ago, “energy medicine” sounded like something you might see in a sci-fi movie. But when pulsed electromagnetic field therapy hit the scene and then quickly received FDA approval for its benefits, this kind of treatment became a reality in the healthcare field.

Yet, many people still haven’t heard of PEMF, and when they do, they don’t understand how it works. 

At its core, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy uses two basic principles of science: magnets and electricity. Both of these concepts have been around in some form since the recorded history of humanity began, and scientists knew there was healthcare potential in them. The problem was coming up with a sustainable, controlled way to apply magnets to electricity to figure out what it could do. This happened a few decades ago, and PEMF therapy was born. What led up to this medical innovation, and how has it changed since then? This guide explains the history of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy and all its interesting developments.

It’s Ancient History

Long before PEMF machines were on the market, ancient physicians used magnets and electricity to treat patients. Singular magnets in the form of lodestones provided a magnetic charge. These naturally magnetized minerals came from magnetite and were a go-to treatment for any bodily imbalances, including pain, fatigue, and even sterility. Over the centuries, scientists understood that, contrary to historical belief, static magnetic charges don’t actually have any health benefits. But they recognized the potential energy in a magnet and began researching how they could channel that energy into something that did work.

What Kites and PEMF Therapy Have in Common

The invention that advanced this research was none other than Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment. The power of electricity did more than add lights and controlled energy to our homes. It helped inventors harness that power, combine it with magnets, and produce electrotherapy.
his was the next phase in the development of PEMF. In the early 18th century, physicians used electrotherapy to treat various health conditions. In fact, this period brought us the very first introduction to using electricity to treat heart attacks, described by Joseph Francis Domin in the early 1800s. This was over one hundred years before clinical defibrillation would become part of standard medical care. Domin explained how static electricity affects the body, increasing circulation and accelerating bodily systems like pulse, sweat, and fever. At the same time, the electric charge reduced obstruction in blood vessels and opening blockages. In effect, Domin was describing how to bring the dead back to life using electricity — the foundation of today’s modern defibrillators. But that’s not the only therapy that changed due to Domin’s ideas.

Controlling electricity through electric coils advanced medical treatments in multiple areas, including reducing muscle pain. Guillaume Duchene paved the way for this therapy in 1856, and Nikola Tesla suggested that pulsed electrotherapy could have health benefits in 1897.

With the advent of electricity as a daily part of life in every household, research became more accessible. By the 20th century, we knew how to control electricity to prevent it from harming us, and through machines like PEMF, healthcare changed forever.

The Modern PEMF Machine

The first attempts at controlling electricity and harnessing it with magnets used cumbersome coils and other parts that were hard to transport and expensive to obtain. Researchers knew the system worked but needed a way to make the machines more cost-efficient and controlled.

In the 1950s, research began in earnest. By the 1970s, the first commercially available modern PEMF machine was born. However, the first recipients of this powerful machine weren’t humans — they were racehorses!

Veterinarians used PEMF therapy to treat injuries sustained by racehorses during practice and races. These strains and sprains often kept expensive horses from training and participating, and vets were tasked with fixing the problem and getting the animal back on its feet.

The results were so impressive that the therapy received the attention of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and the machine was approved for certain types of treatment in humans.

The Timeline of PEMF and FDA-Approval

Many fields in healthcare work but aren’t FDA-approved for various reasons. That FDA label gives providers and patients the trust that what they’re prescribing or using is the gold standard in medical care. 

So, although PEMF was already in use for centuries, when the first machine received FDA approval in 1979, it was a game-changer. The original approval was given to use PEMF therapy to aid in stimulating bone growth. Since then, the list has expanded to include:

  • Adjunct therapy for edema (swelling) and pain after an operation, 1987
  • Treatment for urinary incontinence and muscle pain, 1998
  • Adjunct therapy for recovery after cervical fusion surgery, 2004
  • Treatment for depression in severe cases where patients are not responsive to medication, 2008
  • Treatment of brain cancer, 2011

Because PEMF therapy has little to no side effects, it is used in many other situations where tissue healing and cellular health are necessary, but the FDA has not yet approved the treatment. The results of research in dozens of areas continue to show positive changes, and more FDA-approved therapies are expected in the near future.

PEMF for Wellness

The trend in healthcare was already moving from masking symptoms to preventive care before COVID. But after the global pandemic, the world understood the necessity of wellness versus sickness treatment. PEMF therapy plays a vital role in getting your body in balance and keeping it there.

The FDA’s reclassification of PEMF machines to a class 2 medical device in 2015 made it possible for manufacturers to create and sell variations of the device to a wide market. Reputable PEMF therapy systems are now registered as FDA-approved wellness devices.

Rather than waiting until you’re already hurting or your tissues are damaged, you can use the PEMF machine to stay healthy. Some machines are portable, others slide under your mattress to work as you sleep.

The change from magnetic and electric therapy of centuries ago to today’s PEMF machines is drastically different. But scientists’ idea of using magnets and electricity to treat health conditions is the same. The field continues to evolve with more research, and future patient care opportunities may be endless.