What is energy healing?

Acupuncture and moxing (Wikimedia Commons)

At last week’s meeting Zack Lewis discussed several varieties of energy healing, alternative therapies derived largely from Eastern traditions including reiki and acupuncture. Promoters of energy healing may invoke concepts from physics, from quantum mechanics to electromagnetism to energy itself, to suggest a scientific underpinning. Most claim, more directly, that their treatments have been validated, not just by testimonials but through clinical trials.

The clinical evidence for acupuncture and emotional freedom techniques, for example, show a pretty consistent trend in my view. But paralleling the question of evidence always seems to be a hidden question of definition. What, precisely, is being tested?

Here’s an example. A while back i got into an exchange with an EFT practitioner over how to interpret the clinical evidence for its success, one part of which i remember well: EFT consists of tapping points on the body along meridians (the ones from acupuncture) while reciting, silently or vocally, a positive affirmation of overcoming some obstacle or discomfort. While many practitioners perform EFT, the treatment is also popularly self-administered. So, when some skeptical (like, affiliated with Skeptical Inquirer) researchers decided to test proper EFT for anxiety reduction against a sham that used non-meridian points on the arms, rather than have practitioners perform the treatment (who would have known the difference and possibly biased the results) they had participants (who were new to the idea) self-administer, some at the meridian points and some at other points on their arms. A control group did a separate activity not expected to be of much help.

The resulting measures of anxiety reduction revealed no difference between the EFT and sham EFT groups, though both outperformed the control. The researchers chalked the advantage up to “components shared with more traditional therapies already established as effective treatments for specific phobia”. My adversary was unconvinced. They pointed to a rebuttal (paywalled), which explained that the self-application of sham EFT, while it may miss meridian points on the arm, invariably triggers meridian points on the tips of the fingers doing the tapping. One should therefore have expected the true and sham treatments to both work.

This raised a few questions in my mind: Why didn’t the meridian-tapping group perform better than the non-meridian-tapping group, since they were tapping twice as many meridians? More importantly, why does the canonical EFT literature recommend self-treatment at meridian points if any ol’ points will do? If indeed there is no difference in outcome, does EFT “work”?

The placebo effect, as i understand it, refers to whatever is achieved through a treatment regimen that can be reproduced without the essential elements of the treatment; by carefully defining the treatment we also define the placebo. In this case, assuming the study’s results hold up, either EFT does not require tapping meridian points, or EFT does not work.

This is a common clinical and ethical concern, especially when it comes to subjective or fuzzy conditions like pain and stress, and not just when it comes to alternative medicine. While we’re on energy healing, consider one more comparison. This video comes from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and describes the basics of acupuncture over video of several patients receiving treatment:

The next video, of a full acupuncture session, was filmed by a patient:

The first video depicts acupuncture purely as needle insertion (by twisting or tapping) and stimulation (by wiggling or electricity). The second widens the picture to a whole environment of factors—consultation and conversation, companion treatments, lighting, and even rest. How much of this experience is “acupuncture”?

How, by comparison, might we think differently about conventional painkillers if we were instructed to take them while relaxing on a padded mat following a friendly conversation with our doctor, then rest for a half-hour in low light as they take effect? For my own part, when i’m feeling anxious or my neck is sore, i’ll seek out a friend for a conversation or a massage…and i’ll know pretty much what to expect.

2 thoughts on “What is energy healing?

  1. I think it’s interesting how many different things can alleviate pain without medication. I got impacted wisdom teeth removed a couple years ago, and decided to go without pain medication. I can’t think straight when I’m on painkillers, and they cause nausea for me. The pain was pretty bad, but I could alleviate it substantially just by distracting myself watching TV or reading. It even seemed like it helped at the time to tell myself that it wasn’t that bad. It doesn’t surprise me then that treatments amounting to the placebo effect can reduce pain, or at least make someone’s experience of it not as bad.

    So then is there any problem with people offering services that claim to reduce pain, even if by a mechanism that is unlikely to be real? After all, it will help so long as the person is convinced that it will.

    While I don’t find this to be nearly as much of a problem as services claiming to cure ailments that require real medical attention, and it’s certainly better to avoid using painkillers without necessity, I still think there’s a problem with it. Even if someone experiences reduced stress or pain, they are still being misled.

    • There is a problem with not pointing out charlatans in a public manner because people don’t learn to identify pseudoscience. Sure, for painkillers it doesn’t matter, but it seems to me that these people will apply the same logic to deadly diseases and not get treated for things like cancer.

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