Energy medicine

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Energy medicine, energy therapy, energy healing, or spiritual healing are branches of alternative medicine. The most controversial claim in this general area of pseudoscience is the belief healers can channel healing energy into a patient and effect positive results. This idea itself contains several methods: hands-on,[1] hands-off,[1] and distant[1][2] (or absent) where the patient and healer are in different locations.

Many schools of energy healing exist using many names, for example, bio field energy healing,[3][4] spiritual healing,[5] contact healing, distant healing, therapeutic touch,[6] Reiki[7] or Qigong.[3]

Spiritual healing occurs largely in non-denominational and ecumenical contexts. Practitioners do not see traditional religious faith as a prerequisite for effecting cures. Faith healing, by contrast, takes place within a traditional religious context.[8][verification needed]

While early reviews of the scientific literature on energy healing were equivocal and recommended further research,[9][10] more recent reviews have concluded that there is no evidence supporting clinical efficacy.[11][12][13][14][15][16] The theoretical basis of healing has been criticised as implausible,[17][18][19][20] research and reviews supportive of energy medicine have been faulted for containing methodological flaws[21][22][23] and selection bias,[21][22] and positive therapeutic results have been dismissed as resulting from known psychological mechanisms.[21][22]

Edzard Ernst, formerly Professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of Exeter, has warned that “healing continues to be promoted despite the absence of biological plausibility or convincing clinical evidence … that these methods work therapeutically and plenty to demonstrate that they do not”.[13] Some claims of those purveying “energy medicine” devices are known to be fraudulent[24] and their marketing practices have drawn law-enforcement action in the U.S.[24]



There is a history of association or exploitation of scientific inventions by individuals claiming that newly discovered science could help people to heal: In the 19th century, electricity and magnetism were in the “borderlands” of science and electrical quackery was rife.[25] These concepts continue to inspire writers in the New Age movement.[26] In the early 20th century health claims for radio-active materials put lives at risk,[27] and recently quantum mechanics and grand unification theory have provided similar opportunities for commercial exploitation.[28] Thousands of devices claiming to heal via putative or veritable energy are used worldwide. Many of them are illegal or dangerous and are marketed with false or unproven claims.[24][29] Several of these devices have been banned.[30][31] Reliance on spiritual and energetic healings is associated with serious harm or death when medical treatment is delayed or foregone.[32] Various commentary points to an impairment in critical thinking.[32]


The term “energy medicine” has been in general use since the founding of the non-profit International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine in the 1980s. Guides are available for practitioners, and other books aim to provide a theoretical basis and evidence for the practice. Energy medicine often proposes that imbalances in the body’s “energy field” result in illness, and that by re-balancing the body’s energy-field health can be restored.[33] Some modalities describe treatments as ridding the body of negative energies or blockages in ‘mind’; illness or episodes of ill health after a treatment are referred to as a ‘release’ or letting go of a ‘contraction’ in the body-mind. Usually, a practitioner will then recommend further treatments for complete healing.

The US-based National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) distinguishes between health care involving scientifically observable energy, which it calls “Veritable Energy Medicine”, and health care methods that invoke physically undetectable or unverifiable “energies”, which it calls “Putative Energy Medicine”:[33]

Polarity therapy

Polarity therapy is a kind of energy medicine[37] based on the belief that a person’s health is subject to positive and negative charges in their electromagnetic field.[38] It has been promoted as capable of curing a number of human ailments ranging from muscular tightness to cancer; however, according to the American Cancer Society “available scientific evidence does not support claims that polarity therapy is effective in treating cancer or any other disease”.[38]


Energy healing relies on a belief in the ability of a practitioner to channel healing energy into the person seeking help by different methods: hands-on,[1] hands-off,[1] and distant[1][2] (or absent) where the patient and healer are in different locations. The Brockhampton Guide to Spiritual Healing describes contact healing in terms of “transfer of … healing energy” and distant healing based on visualising the patient in perfect health.[2] Practitioners say that this “healing energy” is sometimes perceived by the therapist as a feeling of heat.[1]

There are various schools of energy healing, including biofield energy healing,[3][4] spiritual healing,[5] contact healing, distant healing, therapeutic touch,[6] Reiki,[7] Qigong, and many others.[3]

Spiritual healing is largely non-denominational; traditional religious faith is not seen as a prerequisite for effecting a cure. Faith healing, by contrast, takes place within a religious context.[8] The Buddha is often quoted by practitioners of energy medicine, but he did not practise “hands on or off” healing.[citation needed]

Energy healing techniques such as Therapeutic touch have found recognition in the nursing profession. In 2005-2006, the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association approved the diagnosis of “energy field disturbance” in patients, reflective of what has been variously called a “postmodern” or “anti-scientific” approach to nursing care. This approach has been strongly criticised.[39][40][41]

Believers in these techniques have proposed quantum mystical invocations of non-locality to try to explain distant healing.[18] They have also proposed that healers act as a channel passing on a kind of bioelectromagnetism which shares similarities to vitalistic pseudosciences such as orgone or qi.[19][20] Drew Leder remarked in a paper in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that such ideas were attempts to “make sense of, interpret, and explore ‘psi’ and distant healing.” and that “such physics-based models are not presented as explanatory but rather as suggestive.”[42] Beverly Rubik, in an article in the same journal,[43] justified her belief with references to biophysical systems theory, bioelectromagnetics, and chaos theory that provide her with a “…scientific foundation for the biofield…” Writing in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, James Oschman[44] introduced the concept of healer-sourced electromagnetic fields which change in frequency. Oschman believes that “healing energy” derives from electromagnetic frequencies generated by a medical device, projected from the hands of the healer, or by electrons acting as antioxidants.[45]

Physicists and skeptics roundly criticize these explanations as pseudophysics — a branch of pseudoscience which explains magical thinking by using irrelevant jargon from modern physics to exploit scientific illiteracy and to impress the unsophisticated.[17] Indeed, even enthusiastic supporters of energy healing point out that “there are only very tenuous theoretical foundations underlying healing.”[36]

Scientific investigations

Distant healing

A systematic review of 23 trials of distant healing published in 2000 did not draw definitive conclusions because of the “methodologic limitations of several studies”.[9] In 2001 the lead author of that study, Edzard Ernst, published a primer on complementary therapies in cancer care in which he explained that though “about half of these trials suggested that healing is effective” he cautioned that the evidence was “highly conflicting” and that “methodological shortcomings prevented firm conclusions.” He concluded that “as long as it is not used as an alternative to effective therapies, spiritual healing should be virtually devoid of risks.”[10] A 2001 randomized clinical trial by the same group found no statistically significant difference on chronic pain between distance healers and “simulated healers”.[11] A 2003 review by Ernst updating previous work concluded that more recent research had shifted the weight of evidence “against the notion that distant healing is more than a placebo” and that “distant healing can be associated with adverse effects.”[46]

Contact healing

A 2001 randomized clinical trial randomly assigned 120 patients with chronic pain to either healers or “simulated healers”, but could not demonstrate efficacy for either distance or face-to-face healing.[11] A Cochrane collaboration systematic review[16] of the use of touch therapies published in 2008 analysed the results of 24 trials and concluded that the attempted review suffered from “a major limitation: the small number of studies and insufficient data. As a result of inadequate data, the effects of touch therapies cannot be clearly declared.” A systematic review in 2008 concluded that the evidence for a specific effect of spiritual healing on relieving neuropathic or neuralgic pain was not convincing.[14] In their 2008 book Trick or Treatment, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst concluded that “spiritual healing is biologically implausible and its effects rely on a placebo response. At best it may offer comfort; at worst it can result in charlatans taking money from patients with serious conditions who require urgent conventional medicine.”[15]

Evidence base

Alternative medicine researcher Edzard Ernst has argued that although an initial review of pre-1999 distant healing trials[9] had highlighted 57% of trials as showing positive results,[10] later reviews of non-randomised and randomised clinical trials conducted between 2000 and 2002[46] led to the conclusion that “the majority of the rigorous trials do not support the hypothesis that distant healing has specific therapeutic effects”. Ernst described the evidence base for healing practices to be “increasingly negative”.[13] Ernst also warned that many of the reviews were under suspicion for fabricated data, lack of transparency, and scientific misconduct. He concluded that “[s]piritual healing continues to be promoted despite the absence of biological plausibility or convincing clinical evidence … that these methods work therapeutically and plenty to demonstrate that they do not.”[13] A 2014 study of energy healing for colorectal cancer patients showed no improvement in quality of life, depressive symptoms, mood, or sleep quality.[47]

Alternative explanations for positive reports

There are several, primarily psychological, explanations for positive reports after energy therapy, including placebo effects, spontaneous remission, and cognitive dissonance. A 2009 review found that the “small successes” reported for two therapies collectively marketed as “energy psychology” (Emotional Freedom Techniques and Tapas Acupressure Technique) “are potentially attributable to well-known cognitive and behavioral techniques that are included with the energy manipulation.” The report concluded that “[p]sychologists and researchers should be wary of using such techniques, and make efforts to inform the public about the ill effects of therapies that advertise miraculous claims.”[21]

There are primarily two explanations for anecdotes of cures or improvements, relieving any need to appeal to the supernatural.[48] The first is post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that a genuine improvement or spontaneous remission may have been experienced coincidental with but independent from anything the healer or patient did or said. These patients would have improved just as well even had they done nothing. The second is the placebo effect, through which a person may experience genuine pain relief and other symptomatic alleviation. In this case, the patient genuinely has been helped by the healer – not through any mysterious or numinous function, but by the power of their own belief that they would be healed.[49][50] In both cases the patient may experience a real reduction in symptoms, though in neither case has anything miraculous or inexplicable occurred. Both cases, are strictly limited to the body’s natural abilities.

Positive findings from research studies can also result from such psychological mechanisms, or as a result of experimenter bias, methodological flaws such as lack of blinding,[21] or publication bias; positive reviews of the scientific literature may show selection bias, in that they omit key studies that do not agree with the author’s position.[21][22] All of these factors must be considered when evaluating claims.

See also


  1. “Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer Patients: Faith Healing”. Moores UCSD Cancer Center. Retrieved 2008-01-17. “Patients who seek the assistance of a faith healer must believe strongly in the healer’s divine gifts and ability to focus them on the ill.”