Techniques to balance your energy are among the most widely used disciplines in alternative medicine. Before taking your pick, here’s what you need to know

Energy medicine goes mainstream: techniques to balance your energy are among the most widely used disciplines in alternative medicine. Before taking your pick, here’s what you need to know

Katy Koontz

When Elena Gillespie’s dog Yiannis was dying of lung cancer, she let a friend talk her into visiting an energy healer for advice. The healer told Gillespie, an emergency medical technician, to touch her dog the same way she touched her patients. Gillespie hadn’t mentioned that, along with the medical procedures she administered, she would sometimes put her hands on a patient and project love and calming thoughts while they rode in the ambulance. But figuring that it couldn’t hurt to follow the healer’s advice, that afternoon she tried the same technique on the Tibetan mastiff’s chest for about 15 minutes. Then she left for work.

“When I came home, the dog who couldn’t even get off the floor earlier in the day was standing at the door, waiting for me!” she says. “I took him out and he ran around. I was stunned.” When the vet took an X-ray of the dog’s chest two days later, the tumor was gone. While it could have disappeared on its own, Gillespie believes Yiannis recovered as a result of her healing touch.

Gillespie’s hands-on application and treatment is an example of energy medicine, which is one of the most widespread of alternative-medicine disciplines, according to Wayne B. Jonas, M.D., former director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Therapeutic touch and acupuncture are the most popular therapies, but others, such as homeopathy and Reiki therapy, are making inroads into the mainstream via complementary or integrative therapy centers at medical schools, hospitals and clinics throughout the country.

Once relegated to the realm of shamans and mystics, energy medicine has been deemed a form of “frontier medicine” by the NCCAM, which defines this specialty as “complementary and alternative medicine practices for which there is no plausible biomedical explanation.” In the fall of 2002, the agency awarded the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington $1.8 million each to establish frontier-medicine research centers.

Today, thanks in part to a relatively recent increase in research funding, scientists are studying how energy medicine might work on a wide range of medical problems, not only on the chronic conditions, such as back pain or headaches, that prompt most people to consider it. For instance, a report this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine noted that homeopathic remedies appear to be effective in treating influenza, an acute ailment. And researchers are investigating how therapeutic touch might boost bone metabolism, and whether a Japanese energy healing technique known as Johrei can speed recovery after surgery.

an old/new paradigm

Many techniques used to manipulate energy in the body have their foundation in ancient healing arts and stem from the Eastern belief that all humans have a life-force energy. This energy is called qi or chi by the Chinese, ki by the Japanese, and prana by Hindus. In these traditions, disease occurs when energy is out of balance, and healing is enhanced when that imbalance is corrected.

The idea of using energy to diagnose and heal isn’t completely foreign to Western medicine. After all, electrocardiograms and electroencephalograms have long been used to record the electrical energy of the heart and brain, respectively. Electrical stimulation is known to suppress certain types of pain. Pulsed electromagnetic fields appear to help fractured bones heal. And sound waves have been used to pulverize kidney stones and overgrowths of bone that cause heel spurs. While these diagnostic tools and treatments make use of energy, they do so in a way that still approaches the body according to the Western paradigm–that is, as a mechanical system. Frontier medicine, however, views the body as a unified system of energy, addressing body, mind and spirit holistically.

“We are energetic beings,” states C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the American Holistic Medical Association. “Everything in the body works both electrically and chemically. We’re like a living battery. And since electricity produces magnetism, the force that attracts and repels molecules, we are electromagnetic as well as electrochemical.”

Proof of a human energy field may be at hand, literally, thanks to a machine invented in 1999 by Russian physicist Konstantin Korotkov. The gas-discharge visualization device passes a low-level electrical current through the fingers and photographs the electromagnetic radiation coming from them. A computer then analyzes the picture and extrapolates information about the entire body. Initial testing found that the machine could distinguish real acupressure points from sham ones. “If the GDV is found to be accurate” says Shealy, “it will be a tremendous boon to the field of energy medicine.”

looking for proof

Attempts to evaluate energy medicine in the past have been mediocre, says Jonas, now the director of the Samueli Institute, a nonprofit research organization specializing in the biology of healing. One big problem: The methods traditionally used to evaluate the effectiveness of a drug or operation have not been used by energy-medicine researchers. A goal of the Samueli Institute is to define accurate and universally acceptable standards, methods and protocols for objectively evaluating this form of medicine.

“In fact, because we need to incorporate more complex issues [than are included in the study of conventional medicine], we need to develop even better methods for research,” Jonas says. This will allow scientists to finally ascertain if energy fields exist and can be altered to enhance healing and to treat disease.

healing choices

If you are considering trying some form of energy medicine, a good place to start is at a university- or hospital-based center for complementary medicine. These centers typically offer the services of practitioners who have formal training and certification by a Rational membership organization. The organizations themselves are a source of referrals to practitioners too, says Jonas, though not all types of energy medicine are represented. Another useful resource is the Directory of Information Resources Online, compiled by the National Library of Medicine (

Going to an independent practitioner is riskier, especially if the form of therapy has no certification program. “Ask for references … and watch for red flags, such as a practitioner guaranteeing that he or she can cure a condition,” Jonas says. He also suggests having your primary-care physician onboard so that the energy-medicine therapy you are interested in can support your conventional medical care. “‘Think of energy medicine as an adjunct to conventional treatment, not as its replacement” he adds.

Elena Gillespie’s experience with her dog prompted her to incorporate energy medicine into her conventional medical training as an EMT. She studied Reiki, and eventually co-founded the Complementary and Alternative Medical Research Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of roughly 16 research centers that are funded in part by the government to investigate alternative healing methods.

The disciplines described on these pages are some of the most common energy-medicine practices used today. Some techniques are actually being practiced by conventionally trained physicians, while some are practiced by alternative practitioners but in conventional-medicine settings, and some are just beginning to be studied.

Until research methods are established and the appropriate studies conducted and published–a process that may take a decade-there is no way to prove that energy medicine works. So far, acupuncture (see page 102) has been the most widely examined form of energy medicine, and the results have been persuasive enough that the NIH has called it “highly effective” for numerous conditions. Meanwhile, many of the therapies continue to grow in support and popularity as we explore this new frontier.

acupuncture and acupressure

What it is: Hair-thin needles are inserted at specific points (gateways or acupoints) along a network of energy channels (meridians) in the body that correspond to specific organs or organ systems. According to Eastern medicine, energy is a life-activating force that moves through the entire body. When acupuncture needles are placed at several of the 2,000 points along the meridians, the flow of constantly circulating energy is activated or inhibited, restoring equilibrium. (Acupressure, in which firm finger pressure is applied to these acupoints, has a similar effect.) Investigations have shown that acupuncture causes the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers, and other chemical messengers.

State of the art and science: Acupuncture is now a licensed medical profession in more than 40 states. The World Health Organization has long recognized acupuncture’s ability to treat nearly four dozen common ailments, including arthritis, migraine, low-back pain, allergies, respiratory ailments and gastrointestinal disorders.

The National Institutes of Health has found acupuncture useful in treating neatly a dozen conditions, including headache, low-back pain, fibromyalgia, tennis elbow, asthma, menstrual cramps and some inflammatory conditions.

A review published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal reported that evidence is strongest for acupuncture’s success in treating dental pain and temporomandibular joint pain, and promising for relieving headaches, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. Research on chronic back pain, stated the BMJ, is less conclusive.

Currently, NCCAM is funding 19 studies on acupuncture and acupressure.

magnetic healing

What it is: Magnets are placed on or near the body to reduce pain and swelling and speed healing. Practitioners say that the magnetic field created by the magnets increases circulation, improving oxygen supply and waste removal from cells in the area. Additionally, the magnetic field is supposed to inhibit nerve signals carrying pain messages to the brain.

State of the art and science: This is one of the most frequently used of all the energy-medicine techniques. Magnets are said to relieve muscle spasms and painful conditions such as arthritis, lower-back ache, headaches, toothaches, and strains and joint pain. Despite their popularity, no convincing evidence has yet been published showing that magnets have any effect on the body. Orthopedists acknowledge, however, that high-speed pulses of electromagnetic fields hasten the healing of bone fractures by attracting calcium to the area to promote new bone growth.

sound healing

What it is: Sound healing is based on the principle of sympathetic resonance, meaning that one vibration in an area can cause other things in the immediate environment to vibrate without being physically touched. Practitioners of sound healing use tuning forks, electronically produced music, drumming and chanting to affect body functions and alter mood. They believe that specific sound frequencies or vibrations can increase the activity of cells, overall health. Scientists have found the rhythmic drumbeats encourage brain waves to shift to a new vibration by mimicking the frequency pattern associated with dreaming or deep states of meditation.

State of the art and science: No large studies have been done evaluating sound therapy, but several small ones show positive results. One of the most promising and well-tested methods relies on audiotapes that use specially engineered frequencies to synchronize the right and left hemispheres of the brain, improving concentration, speeding healing after surgery, and combating depression. A study published in Physiology and Behavior showed that this technology can enhance mood and performance, while a separate report in Anaesthesia concluded that surgery patients who listened to these tapes needed less anesthesia.


What it is: Highly diluted substances, which if given in higher doses would produce the same symptoms experienced by the person who is sick, are the mainstay of this treatment. Practitioners individualize treatment, taking into account the wide range of physical, emotional and lifestyle factors in a person’s life before making the diagnosis and prescribing treatment. The remedy, which can be a single solution or a combination of solutions, is thought to promote the body’s own defenses against whatever is causing the illness.

State of the art and science: A review of homeopathy studies in the Annals of internal Medicine reported a lack of conclusive evidence on homeopathy’s effectiveness for most conditions, including migraine and delayed muscle soreness. Nevertheless, the authors acknowledge that some randomized, controlled trials showed homeopathy was useful in treating influenza, allergies and childhood diarrhea.

A review published this year in the British Medical Journal reported that homeopathy was twice as effective as a placebo in treating rheumatic syndrome, a disorder involving the musculoskeletal and immune systems.

Light therapy

What it is: A range of light–such as full-spectrum or colored light, or colored strobe light–is used to induce relaxation or treat physical complaints. Exposure to full-spectrum light for an hour each day has been shown to be effective in relieving the depression of seasonal affective disorder by stimulating the body’s release of mood-altering hormones.

Quickly pulsating strobe lights are known to cause seizures, but by slowing down the flashes of light to less than 12 cycles per second, light therapists believe that they can coax the brain into a state of deep relaxation, says Norman Shealy, M.D., professor of spiritual healing at Holos University in Fair Grove, Mo.

State of the art and science: Research at the Shealy Wellness Center in Springfield, Mo., indicates that green and violet lights cause the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin (which, among other functions, increase feelings of well-being) and pain-relieving endorphins. Researchers in Shealy’s lab have also shown that exposure to a pulsating light improves depression and helps normalize the slightly irregular heartbeat that can occur in times of stress.

Biofield therapy

What it is: There are various techniques that aim to promote healing by influencing the energy that surrounds and penetrates the body. One is the ancient Chinese art of qi gong (pronounced “chee-GUNG”), which combines movement, meditation and regulated breathing. Another is Reiki (“RAY-kee”), a Japanese technique that aims to alter the energy pathways of the body. Reiki practitioners claim to accomplish this as they draw sacred symbols with their hands in the energy field just above their subjects’ bodies. In medical centers, therapeutic touch, a variation of the ancient healing method known as “laying on of hands,” is becoming more widely used. It involves lightly touching or holding the hands above the body in order to manipulate the energy field.

State of the art and science:

Therapeutic touch has been shown to enhance the health of premature babies and studies are underway to confirm that it reduces the stress placed on their immature bodies. The technique, which was developed by a nurse in the 1970s, is taught to health professionals at 8o universities throughout the country. Today, some 30,000 nurses use its methods for enhancing healing in children and adults.

A meta-analysis published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine showed a positive effect in most of the 38 studies reviewed, while a meta-analysis of therapeutic-touch research in Nursing Science Quarterly reported that the therapy produced a positive effect.

Several current studies funded by NCCAM intend to evaluate whether Reiki improves fibromyalgia, the anxiety and depression experienced by those suffering from advanced AIDS, and . diabetic neuropathy, a painful condition involving the nerves of the feet.

Researchers are also measuring the ability of qi gong masters to alter the growth of cell cultures. This experiment is designed to eliminate the possibility of the placebo effect, which has proved to be an obstacle to research in human clinical studies.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Weider Publications

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