Do you recall the Q-Ray Bracelets? You know, the magnetic wristbands that promised to produce instantaneous and significant pain relief from arthritis and other chronic diseases?

Well, you won’t find much of that promoting anymore; in 2008, the manufacturers of the Q-Ray Bracelets were legally obligated to return customers a maximum of $87 million as a consequence of misleading and fraudulent advertising.1

The problem had to do with making health claims that were not supported by any scientific confirmation. On the contrary, strong evidence was there to suggest that the magnetic bracelets had NO effect on pain reduction, which did not bode well for the producer but did wonders to win the court case for the Federal Trade Commission.2

The wishful thinking fallacy

Fine, so the Q-Ray bracelets didn’t show results (outside of the placebo effect), yet they ended up selling amazingly well. What gives?

Without delving into the depths of human psychology, the easy response is that we have a strong propensity to believe in the things that seem to make our lives better and easier.

On an emotional level, you’d love to believe that putting on a $50 bracelet will take away your pain and that you don’t have to trouble yourself with high price medical and surgical procedures.

If, for instance, you happen to struggle with chronic arthritis in your knee, which idea seems more desirable?

        a. Arranging surgery for a complete knee replacement

        b. Taking a trip to the mall to pick up a magnetized bracelet

Your instinct is to give the bracelet a try. You already desire to believe that the bracelet will do the job, so now all you need is a little push from the marketers and some social confirmation from spotting other people using them.

But it is exactly this natural inclination, together with the tendency to seek out confirming evidence, that will get you into the most trouble.

If it sounds too good to be true…

Bearing in mind the Q-Ray bracelets, let’s say you’re suffering from hearing loss; which option sounds more appealing?

       a. Arranging a consultation with a hearing practitioner and purchasing professionally programmed hearing aids

       b. Buying an off-the-shelf personal sound amplifier on the web for 20 bucks

Just like the magnetic wristband seems much more desirable than a visit to the physician or surgeon, the personal sound amplifier seems much more desirable than a trip to the audiologist or hearing instrument specialist.

But unfortunately, as with the magnetic wristbands, personal sound amplifiers won’t cure anything, either.

The difference between hearing aids and personal sound amplifiers

Before you get the wrong impression, I’m not implying that personal sound amplifiers, also referred to as PSAPs, are fraudulent — or even that they don’t function.

On the contrary, personal sound amplifiers often do give good results. Just like hearing aids, personal sound amplifiers contain a receiver, a microphone, and an amplifier that receive sound and make it louder. Considered on that level, personal sound amplifiers work reasonably well — and for that matter, so does the act of cupping your hands behind your ears.

However when you ask if PSAPs work, you’re asking the wrong question. The questions you should be asking are:

  1. How well do they work?
  2. For which type of person do they function best?

These are precisely the questions that the FDA addressed when it introduced its recommendations on the distinction between hearing aids and personal sound amplifiers.

According to the FDA, hearing aids are defined as “any wearable instrument or device designed for, offered for the purpose of, or represented as aiding persons with or compensating for, impaired hearing.” (21 CFR 801.420)3

On the other hand, personal sound amplifiers are “intended to amplify environmental sound for non-hearing impaired consumers. They are not intended to compensate for hearing impairment.”

Even though the difference is clear, it’s easy for PSAP manufacturers and sellers to get around the distinction by simply not pointing it out. For instance, on a PSAP package, you might find the tagline “turning ordinary hearing into extraordinary hearing.” This statement is imprecise enough to avoid the issue entirely without having to define exactly what the slogan “turning ordinary hearing into extraordinary hearing” even means.

You get what you pay for

As stated by the FDA, PSAPs are simplified amplification devices designed for those with normal hearing. So if you have normal hearing, and you are interested to hear better while hunting, bird watching, or listening in to distant conversations, then a $20 PSAP is ideally suited for you.

If you suffer from hearing loss, on the other hand, then you’ll need professionally programmed hearing aids. Although more costly, hearing aids have the power and features required to correct hearing loss. The following are some of the reasons why hearing aids are superior to PSAPs:

  • Hearing aids amplify only the frequencies that you have trouble hearing, while PSAPs amplify all sound indiscriminately. By amplifying all frequencies, PSAPs won’t permit you to hear conversations in the presence of background noise, like when you’re at a party or restaurant.
  • Hearing aids come with built in noise minimization and canceling functions, while PSAPs do not.
  • Hearing aids are programmable and can be fine-tuned for optimum hearing; PSAPs are not programmable.
  • Hearing aids contain various features and functions that block out background noise, allow for phone use, and provide for wireless connectivity, for example. PSAPs do not typically include any of these features.
  • Hearing aids come in diverse styles and are custom-molded for optimum comfort and aesthetic appeal. PSAPs are in general one-size-fits-all.

Seek the help of a hearing professional

If you suspect you have hearing loss, don’t be enticed by the low-cost PSAPs; rather, arrange for an appointment with a hearing specialist. They will be able to accurately quantify your hearing loss and will make sure that you receive the ideal hearing aid for your lifestyle and needs. So even though the low-cost PSAPs are enticing, in this scenario you should listen to your better judgment and seek expert help. Your hearing is worth the work.


  1. Federal Trade Commission: Appeals Court Affirms Ruling in FTCs Favor in Q-Ray Bracelet Case
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information: Effect of “ionized” wrist bracelets on musculoskeletal pain: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
  3. Food and Drug Administration: Guidance for Industry and FDA Staff: Regulatory Requirements for Hearing Aid Devices and Personal Sound Amplification Products
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