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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Band of Fool's Gold?

Believers claim copper reduces arthritic pain pain?

By Catherine Shepherd


H ONG KONG'S DOUBLE-DECKER buses carry advertisements for them; the Singapore-based Internet Cybermall features them as a premier item; and Korean drug and department stores claim they are currently one of the most sought-after products. Copper bracelets, sometimes fitted with magnets at each end, are riding the crest of popularity in Asia. Several companies market the bracelets under various names and the bands have become especially coveted among arthritis sufferers. They say the bangles help. Do they?

Arthritis, a painful inflammation of the joints often affecting knuckles and hips, strikes in varying degrees of seriousness -- it can be crippling or only slightly bothersome.

There are several types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis, usually caused by everyday wear-and-tear and the natural degeneration of old age, sometimes prematurely strikes those who work their joints intensely -- ballet dancers, for example. There is no known cause for inflammatory arthritis, a form that tends to affect the entire body rather than only one joint. Crystal-deposition arthritis, an example of which is gout, occurs when uric acid crystals, found in small amounts in the blood, build up and inflame wrist, knee and toe joints. In each case, joints grow swollen and red and lose their strength. If you experience any of these symptoms, your doctor will be able to determine the type of arthritis and its appropriate treatment through blood tests and x-rays.

The bracelets' manufacturers claim that discomfort from all types of arthritis is relieved by wearing the copper band next to the skin; the metal in the interior ribbon can then be absorbed by the body. Even more remarkable, those who do not suffer from arthritis have been sporting the bracelet in hopes of reducing some of the pressure and tension of everyday life. Many proponents say they feel better with their bracelet on. Dr. Wong Woon Sing, a consultant physician at Hong Kong's Queen Mary Hospital with a specialty in rheumatology, says the bracelet might work for some patients because of its placebo effect. Those wearing it believe they are experiencing pain relief and, in turn, notice their discomfort less. "The change in the sensation of pain is not the result of changes in the condition," says Dr. Wong, "but the result of the belief of the wearer." As a placebo, the bracelet can serve as a valid method of pain control. Conventional arthritis medications, in fact, can leave patients with side-effects ranging from gastro-intestinal upset to diabetes.

The heavy metal was first thought to ameliorate inflammatory diseases in 1939 when copper miners in Finland were found to be unaffected by arthritis as long as they worked in the mine. Now, professional golfers like Vijay Singh and even ex-Beatle Ringo Starr sport the bracelets for a better golf swing and general well-being. Should you part with your money to try them out?

The copper bangles come plated with gold or silver, and in varying widths and designs. The basic copper bangle sells for under $30, and a gold-plated, intricately engraved version can cost about $80. Although I am not an arthritis sufferer, for one week I faithfully wore the copper bangle. I felt neither better nor worse for it. But perhaps just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, healing is in the mind of the wearer.


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