MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

“energy” healing

Yes, I know, lately I have been neglecting my ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’. This is entirely my fault; there are so many candidates waiting to be admitted that, I have been hesitant as to who should be next. Today, I came across an article about Deepak Chopra and his latest book, Super Genes. It tells “how lifestyle shifts can help you reboot your health at a genetic level.” If it were just for this single sentence, he would deserve to be admitted – no, not into what you just thought, into the ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’, of course’.

I will save you the expense of buying his book (don’t worry, Deepak is already a multi-millionaire) by repeating what the article said about his ‘6 pillars of wellbeing’ (another cracker!!!):

DIET

• A typical modern diet is very likely to cause inflammation, which research has linked to many chronic diseases and obesity.

• To reduce inflammation, add prebiotics – substances that buffer the body from inflammation – such as oatmeal, pulpy orange juice, bran cereal and bananas to your breakfast.

• Consume probiotics – foods that contain active bacteria – once a day for gut health. These foods include active yoghurt, pickles and sauerkraut.

• Eat mindfully – eat only when you’re genuinely hungry and stop when you are full.

• Reduce snacking by eating only one measured portion in a bowl; never eat straight from a bag or packet.

STRESS

• Three factors generally lie behind the problem of chronic stress: repetition, unpredictability and a lack of control. Think of a dog barking outside your window; you don’t know when it will end and you have no way of stopping it.

• Decrease background noise and distractions at work. Also, avoid multitasking by dealing with one thing at a time.

• Leave work on time at least three times a week and don’t bring work home. Leave the office at the office.

• Avoid people who are sources of pressure and conflict. Even normal office behaviour, such as forming cliques and gossiping, is a source of stress that has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

• If you struggle to deal with negative emotions, ask your doctor about cognitive behaviour therapy.

EXERCISE

• The secret to exercise is this: keep going and don’t stop. It’s better to be active all your life at a lower level, rather than to be at a near professional-level in high school, say, and then stop completely.

• At work get up and move around once an hour and devote half your lunch break to movement, even if it’s walking around the block.

• Be in nature more: go outside for five to 10 minutes three times a day.

• Acquire more active friends and join them in their activities. Plan a shared exercise activity with your spouse or friends twice a week.

• Make leisure time more creative – think beyond TV or internet.

• Volunteer to help the needy with housecleaning, painting and repairs.

This will serve as both exercise and a morale boost.

MEDITATION

• Meditate every day for 10 minutes.

Sit with your eyes closed in a quiet place, put your attention on the tip of your nose and focus on the sensation of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils.

• Don’t look at meditation as an aid for the bad days you experience (“I’m feeling good today, so I don’t need to meditate”). It should be a lifelong practice.

• Take 10 minutes out of your lunch break to sit alone with eyes closed, preferably outside in nature.

• Notice what a relief it is to take big deep breaths when you are upset or nervous, and how ragged your breath becomes when you are anxious or stressed.

• Join an organised meditation course in your area. Search for meetup.com to find local groups that meet all around the country.

SLEEP

• Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If total darkness is impossible, wear a sleep mask.

• Drink a glass of warm almond milk, which is rich in calcium and promotes melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

• Experiment with herbal teas associated with good sleep such as chamomile, valerian, passionflower, lavender and kava kava.

• Explore abhyanga, a self-massage technique that uses warmed sesame oil, lightly massaged into arms, legs, neck and torso (go to YouTube to see tutorials).

• Don’t ignore insomnia. In some studies sleep disorders have been associated with triggering Alzheimer’s disease and are also associated with high blood pressure.

EMOTIONS

• Take responsibility for your feelings. Wellbeing depends upon happiness, yet most people don’t really make that connection.

• Write down five specific things that make you happy and, on a daily basis, do at least one of them.

• Set a “good news policy” at meal times, whether it’s the radio station you choose to listen to or the topic of conversation around the table.

• Explore a time in your past when you were happy and learn from it, whether that means re-embracing an old hobby or getting in touch with an old friend.

• Become comfortable with delayed gratification – consider how your choices will make you feel in the future as well as today.

END OF QUOTE

My favourite website about Deepak Chopra is the one by Tom Williamson. It states that “it has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with “#cosmisconciousness”. This site aims to test that claim! Each “quote” is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence.” It seems to me that Deepak himself might have made ample use of this site for writing his latest book, and if you should ever run out of platitudes or empty phrases, this site will serve you well.

Deepak has published plenty of best-sellers, but he has as good as nothing to show for himself in the peer-reviewed medical literature. (When you are that famous, you obviously don’t need to bother anymore with trivia such as evidence, science and all that jazz.) This means that I had to deviate from my usual admission criteria for the “prophet of alternative medicine”, as Deepak likes to be called. But he is well worth making an exception, I am sure you agree, he is the absolute super-star!

Super-star of what?

I let you decide!

 

This series of post is quite good fun – at least for me who is writing it.  But I also hope that it is useful to those readers who are tempted to consult alternative practitioners. My intention is to stimulate people’s ability to think critically and to provide some sort of guide for patients which might help them in deciding which practitioners to avoid.

In this spirit, I now offer you the next instalment of three ‘tricks of the trade’:

 

NATURAL IS GOOD

Everyone working in advertising will confirm: the ‘natural label’ is a great asset for boosting sales of all sorts of things. Practitioners of alternative medicine have long appreciated this fact and exploited it to the best of their abilities. They stress the ‘naturalness’ of their treatments ad nauseam, and more often than not they use the term misleadingly.

For instance, there is nothing natural to thrust a patients spine beyond the physiological range of motion [chiropractic]; there is nothing natural in endlessly diluting and shaking remedies which may or may not have their origin in a natural substance [homeopathy]; there is nothing natural in sticking needles into the skin of patients [acupuncture].

Moreover, the notion of a benign ‘mother nature’ is naïvely misleading. Ask those who have been at sea during a storm or who have been struck by lightning.

My advice is to see through transparent marketing slogans and to tell the anyone who goes on about the ‘naturalness’ of his therapy to buzz off.

ENERGY

When one goes to a meeting of alternative practitioners, the term ‘energy’ is mentioned more often than at a board meeting of EDF. The difference is that the alternative brigade does not mean really energy when they speak of energy; they mean ‘vital force’ or one of the many related terms from other traditions.

Practitioners do prefer to use ‘energy’ because this sounds modern and impressive to many consumers. Crucially, it avoids disclosing how deeply steeped the therapists are in vitalism and vitalistic ideas. Whereas rational thinkers have discarded such concepts more than a century ago, alternative medicine advocates find it hard to do the same – if they did, there would be little else to underpin their various ‘philosophies’.

My advice is to avoid clinicians who are ‘vitalists’ because adhering to long obsolete concepts is a sure sign of dangerous backward thinking.

STIMULATING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

‘Your immune system need stimulating!’ – how often have we heard that from practitioners of alternative medicine? By contrast, conventional clinicians are most reserved about such aims; they might try to stimulate the immune system in certain, rare circumstances. Quite often they need to achieve the opposite effect and use powerful drugs to suppress the immune system. But even when they aim at stimulating the immune system of a patient, they would not use any of the treatments alternative practitioners swear by.

How come? There are several reasons:

  1. The alternative ‘immune stimulants’ do not really stimulate the immune system.
  2. Stimulating the immune system is rarely a desirable therapeutic aim.
  3. Stimulating a normal immune system is hardly possible.
  4. For many of us, stimulating the immune system might even be a very risky business (if it were at all achievable).

My advice is to ask your practitioner precisely why he wants to stimulate your immune system. If he can give you a good reason, ask him to try stimulating his own immune system first and to show you the proof that his therapy can do such a thing.

You have to admit, quacks had a difficult time recently:

  • homeopathy has been disclosed as humbug,
  • chiropractic is not much better,
  • ‘acupuncture awareness week’ left acupuncturists bruised…

Need I go on?

One has to pity these guys; their income is dwindling; they have no pensions, no unions to protect them etc., they know nothing other than quackery…what can they do? They are clearly fighting for survival.

I suggest we all focus, use our imagination and come up with come constructive ideas to help them.

Alright, I start: HOLISTIC DOPING

The fate of the poor (not in a monetary sense, of course) tennis star Sharapova gave me that brainwave.

Our elite athletes are in a pickle: they feel the need to enhance their performance but more and more ways of achieving this with cleverly administered drugs are becoming illegal. Their livelihood is at stake almost as much as that of our dear quacks.

What if the two groups jointed forces?

What if they decided to help solve each others’ problems?

This could be a classical win/win situation!

I am sure homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists etc. could design holistic program for improving athletic performance. It would be highly individualised and embrace body, mind, spirit, sole and anything else they can think of. It could include the newest concepts in quantum healing, energy field, qi, vital force, etc. The advantages are obvious, I think:

  • none of these interventions will ever be found on a list of forbidden drugs,
  • the program will work perfectly well because it will generate large placebo responses,
  • performance will therefore increase (as always in alternative medicine, anecdotal ‘evidence’ will suffice) ,
  • and so will the quacks’ cash flow.

Is there a downside? Not really…oh, hold on…yes there is!

My idea is not that original; others have had it already. In fact, there are quite a few quacks offering alternatives to good old-fashioned doping.

THAT’S THE AWFUL THING ABOUT QUACKERY: ALL THE GOOD IDEAS TURN OUT TO BE ALREADY TAKEN!

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a popular ‘energy therapy’ which is based on the use of hand movements and detection of ‘energy field congestion’ to correct alleged imbalances that, in turn, are postulated to stimulate self-healing. The effectiveness of TT during radiotherapy for breast cancer is unknown, and this study was aimed at shedding some light on it.

Women undergoing adjuvant radiation for stage I/II breast cancer post surgery were recruited for this study. TT treatments were administered to patients in the experimental group three times per week following radiation therapy. The control group did not receive any TT. Both groups had conventional care in addition.

The effectiveness of TT was evaluated by documenting the ‘time to develop’ and the ‘worst grade of radiation’ dermatitis. Toxicity was assessed using NCIC CTC V3 dermatitis scale. Cosmetic rating was performed using the EORTC Breast Cosmetic Rating. The quality of life, mood and energy, and fatigue were assessed by EORTC QLQ C30, POMS, and BFI, respectively. The parameters were assessed at baseline, and serially during treatment.

A total of 49 patients entered the study (17 in the TT group and 32 in the control group). Median age in TT arm was 63 years and in control arm was 59 years. TT was considered feasible as all 17 patients screened completed TT treatment. There were no side effects observed with the TT treatments. In the TT group, the worst grade of radiation dermatitis was grade II in nine patients (53%). Median time to develop the worst grade was 22 days. In the control group, the worst grade of radiation dermatitis was grade III in 1 patient. However, the most common toxicity grade was II in 15 patients (47%). Three patients did not develop any dermatitis. Median time to develop the worst grade in the control group was 31 days. There was no difference between cohorts for the overall EORTC cosmetic score and there was no significant difference in before and after study levels in quality of life, mood and fatigue.

Based on these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: This study is the first evaluation of TT in patients with breast cancer using objective measures. Although TT is feasible for the management of radiation induced dermatitis, we were not able to detect a significant benefit of TT on NCIC toxicity grade or time to develop the worst grade for radiation dermatitis. In addition, TT did not improve quality of life, mood, fatigue and overall cosmetic outcome.

Like all forms of ‘energy healing’, TT lacks any biological plausibility and is not clinically effective. At best, it can generate a placebo-response; but in this particular study it did not even manage that.

Is it not time to stop fooling patients with outright quackery?

Is it not time to stop spending scarce research resources on such nonsense?

Is it not time that editors stop considering such rubbish for publication?

Is it not time to stop allowing TT-proponents to undermine rationality?

Is it not time to make progress and move on?

All across the world we see initiatives to regulate alternative medicine. The most recent news in this sphere comes from Switzerland. The ‘Swissinfo’ website reported that the training of alternative medicine practitioners is to be regulated by creating a ‘COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE DIPLOMA’.

The decision was welcomed by the Organisation of Swiss Alternative Medicine Professionals (OdA KT), which will conduct the exams for the diploma in question. The five therapies selected by the government for the complementary medicine diploma are yoga, ayurveda, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and eutony. The first exams are expected to be held in 2016.

“Recognition by the state provides an important political basis for these therapies,” Christoph Q Meier, secretary general of OdA KT told swissinfo.ch. “The diploma will also improve the quality of therapy offered in Switzerland, as until now anybody could call themselves a therapist.” Meier estimates that there are between 12-15,000 practitioners of complementary therapies in Switzerland. Applicants for the national diploma will first have to pass a series of pre-exams. However, those with recognised qualifications and at least five years of experience could be exempt from the pre-exams. The exam is open to foreign nationals but will only be offered in German, French and Italian. In April this year, ayurveda was also included for a separate national diploma in naturopathy medicine along with Chinese and European traditional medicine, as well as homeopathy. Switzerland has around 3,000 naturopaths.

Whenever issues like this come up, I ask myself: IS REGULATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE A GOOD OR A BAD THING?

On the one hand, one might be pleased to hear that therapists receive some training and that not everyone who feels like it can do this job. On the other hand, it has to be said that regulation of nonsense will inevitably result in nonsense. What is more, regulation will also be misused by the practitioners to claim that their treatment is now well-established and supported by the government. This phenomenon can already be seen in the comments above and it misleads the public who understandably believe that, once a form of health care is regulated officially, it must be evidence-based.

So, what is the solution? I wish I knew the answer.

Any suggestion is welcomed.

A new RCT of Reiki healing has been published by US authors from the following institutions: Union Institute & University, Psychology Program, Brattleboro, VT, Coyote Institute, Augusta and Bangor, ME, Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital, Bangor, ME, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Biddeford, ME, Coyote Institute, Orono, ME. The purpose of this study was to determine if 30 minutes of healing touch could reduce burnout in community mental health clinicians.

The authors utilized a crossover design to explore the efficacy of Reiki versus sham Reiki, a pseudo treatment performed by volunteers who had no experience with Reiki and pretended to be healers vis-à-vis the patients. This sham control intervention was designed to mimic true Reiki.

Subjects were randomized to whether they started with Reiki or sham. The Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS) and the Measure Your Medical Outcome Profile Version 2 (MYMOP-2) were used as outcome measures. Multilevel modeling was used to represent the relations among variables.

The results showed that real Reiki was significantly better than sham Reiki in reducing burnout among community mental health clinicians. Reiki was significant in reducing depersonalization, but only among single people. Reiki reduced the primary symptom on the MYMOP also only among single people.

The authors concluded that the effects of Reiki were differentiated from sham Reiki. Reiki could be helpful in community mental health settings for the mental health of the practitioners.

My team has published on Reiki (see here and here, for instance), and on this blog I have repeatedly been expressed my doubts that Reiki is more than an elaborate placebo (see here and here, for instance). Do these new results mean that I need to eat my words and henceforth praise the wonders of Reiki? No, I don’t think so!

Having conducted studies on ‘energy healing’ myself, I know only too well of the many pitfalls and possibilities of generating false-positive findings with such research. This new study has many flaws, but we need not look far to find the reason for the surprising and implausible finding. Here is my explanation why this study suggests one placebo to be superior to another placebo.

The researchers had to recruit 16 Reiki healers and several non-Reiki volunteers to perform the interventions on the small group of patients. It goes without saying that the Reiki healers were highly motivated to demonstrate the value of their therapy. This means they (unintentionally?) used verbal and non-verbal communication to maximise the placebo effect of their treatment. The sham healers, of course, lacked such motivation. In my view, this seemingly trivial difference alone is capable of producing the false-positive result above.

There are, of course, ways of minimising the danger of such confounding. In our own study of ‘energy healing’ with sham healers as controls, for instance, we instructed both the healers and the sham healers to abstain from all communication with their patients, we filmed each session to make sure, and we asked each patient to guess which treatment they had received. None of these safeguards were incorporated in the present study – I wonder why!

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

Many people suffering from depression or anxiety are tempted to try alternative therapies. One of those is Reiki, a 2500 year old treatment described as a vibrational or subtle energy therapy, and is most commonly facilitated by light touch on or above the body. On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed Reiki and the fact that there is no good evidence for this utterly implausible approach (e.g. here, here and here). Yet, there have been reports of Reiki alleviating anxiety and depression – but what does the totality of the available evidence show when it is submitted to an impartial assessment?

This Cochrane review was aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Reiki for treating anxiety and depression in people aged 16 and over.

Literature searches were conducted in the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL – all years), the Cochrane Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis Review Group’s Specialised Register (CCDANCTR – all years), EMBASE, (1974 to November 2014), MEDLINE (1950 to November 2014), PsycINFO (1967 to November 2014) and AMED (1985 to November 2014). Additional searches were carried out on the World Health Organization Trials Portal (ICTRP) together with ClinicalTrials.gov to identify any ongoing or unpublished studies. All searches were up to date as of 4 November 2014.

Randomised trials were considered in adults with anxiety or depression or both, with at least one arm treated with Reiki delivered by a trained Reiki practitioner. The two authors independently decided on inclusion/exclusion of studies and extracted data. A prior analysis plan had been specified.

The researchers found three studies for inclusion in the review. One recruited males with a biopsy-proven diagnosis of non-metastatic prostate cancer who were not receiving chemotherapy and had elected to receive external-beam radiation therapy; the second study recruited community-living participants who were aged 55 years and older; the third study recruited university students.These studies included subgroups with anxiety and depression as defined by symptom scores and provided data separately for those subgroups. As this included only 25 people with anxiety and 17 with depression and 20 more with either anxiety or depression, but which was not specified, the results could only be reported narratively.

The findings did not show any evidence that Reiki is either beneficial or harmful in this population. The risk of bias for the included studies was generally rated as unclear or high for most domains, which reduced the certainty of the evidence.

The authors of this Cochrane review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to say whether or not Reiki is useful for people over 16 years of age with anxiety or depression or both.

This is a very diplomatic way of expressing the truth, I think. A more forceful conclusion might have been that THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT REIKI IS EFFECTIVE. GIVEN THE TOTAL LACK OF BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, THIS FINDING IS NOT SURPRISING. FUTURE RESEARCH INTO THIS AREA DOES NOT SEEM WARRANTED.

A few years ago, I fell ill with shingles. When patients had consulted me for this condition, during the times when I still was a clinician, I always had to stop myself smiling; they complained bitterly but, really, this was far from serious. Now, affected myself, I did not smile a bit: this was incredibly painful!

I promptly saw my GP in Exeter who, to my utter amazement, prescribed paracetamol. She too seemed to think that this was really nothing to bother her with. As I had feared, the paracetamol did absolutely nothing to my pain. After a few sleepless nights, I went back and asked for something a little more effective. She refused, and I decided to change GP.

Meanwhile, we went on a scheduled holiday to France. I had hoped my shingles would come to a natural end, but my pain continued unabated. People could see it on my face; so our kind neighbour asked whether she could help. I explained the situation, and she instantly claimed to have just the right treatment for me: she knew a healer who lived just round the corner and had helped many of her friends when they had suffered from pain.

“A healer?” I asked, “you cannot be serious.” I explained that I had conducted studies and done other research into this particular subject. Without exception, the results had shown that healing is a pure placebo. “I prefer to carry on taking even something as useless as paracetamol!” I insisted.

But she would have none of it. The next time I saw her, she declared triumphantly that she had made an appointment for me, and there was no question: I had to go.

As it happened, the day before she announced this, I had met up with a doctor friend of mine who, seeing I was in agony, gave me a prescription for gabapentin. In fact, I was just on the way to the pharmacist to pick it up. Thus I was in hopeful that my ordeal was coming to an end. In this optimistic mood I thanked my neighbour for her effort and concern and said something non-committal like “we shall see”.

A few days later, we met again. By this time, the gabapentin had done it’s trick: a was more or less pain-free, albeit a little dazed from the powerful medication. When my neighbour saw me, she exclaimed: “I see that that you are much improved. Wonderful! Yesterday’s healing session has worked!!!”

In my daze, I had forgotten all about the healing, and I had, of course, not been to see the healer. She was so delighted with her coup, that I did not have the heart to tell her the truth. I only said “yes much better, merci”

These events happened a few years ago, but even today, my kind and slightly alternative neighbour believes that, despite having been highly sceptical, healing has cured me of my shingles. To my embarrassment, she occasionally mentions my ‘miraculous cure’.

One day, I must tell her the truth… on second thoughts, perhaps not, she might claim it was distant healing!

The founder of Johrei Healing (JH), Mokichi Okada, believed that “all human beings have toxins in their physical bodies. Some are inherited, others are acquired by ingesting medicines, food additives, unnatural food, unclean air, most drugs, etc. all of these contain chemicals which cannot be used by the body and are treated as poisons…….. Illness is no more than the body’s way of purifying itself to regain health…… The more we resist illness by taking suppressive medications, the harder and more built up the toxins become…… If we do not allow the toxins to be eliminated from the body, we will suffer more, and have more difficult purification…..on the other hand, if we allow illness to take its course by letting the toxins become naturally eliminated from our bodies, we will be healthier.”

Johrei healers channel light or energy or warmth etc. into the patient’s or recipient’s body in order to stimulate well-being and healing. Sounds wacky? Yes!

Still, at one stage my team conducted research into all sorts of wacky healing practices (detailed reasons and study designs can be found in my recent book ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND‘). Despite the wackiness, we even conducted a study of JH. Dr Michael Dixon, who was closely collaborating with us at the time, had persuaded me that it would be reasonable to do such a study. He brought some Japanese JH-gurus to my department to discuss the possibility, and (to my utter amazement) they were happy to pay £ 70 000 into the university’s research accounts for a small pilot study. I made sure that all the necessary ethical safe-guards were in place, and eventually we all agreed to design and conduct a study. Here is the abstract of the paper published once the results were available and written up.

Johrei is a form of spiritual healing comprising “energy channelling” and light massage given either by a trained healer or, after some basic training, by anyone. This pilot trial aimed to identify any potential benefits of family-based Johrei practice in childhood eczema and for general health and to establish the feasibility of a subsequent randomised controlled trial. Volunteer families of 3-5 individuals, including at least one child with eczema were recruited to an uncontrolled pilot trial lasting 12 months. Parents were trained in Johrei healing and then practised at home with their family. Participants kept diaries and provided questionnaire data at baseline, 3,6 and 12 months. Eczema symptoms were scored at the same intervals. Scepticism about Johrei is presently an obstacle to recruitment and retention of a representative sample in a clinical trial, and to its potential use in general practice. The frequency and quality of practise at home by families may be insufficient to bring about the putative health benefits. Initial improvements in eczema symptoms and diary recorded illness, could not be separated from seasonal factors and other potential confounders. There were no improvements on other outcomes measuring general health and psychological wellbeing of family members.”

Our findings were hugely disappointing for the JH-gurus, of course, but we did insist on our right to publish them. Dr Dixon was not involved in the day to day running of our trial, nor in evaluating its results, nor in writing up the paper. He nevertheless showed a keen interest in the matter, kept in contact with the Japanese sponsors, and arranged regular meetings to discuss our progress. It was at one of those gatherings when he mentioned that he was about to fly to Japan to give a progress report to the JH organisation that had financed the study. My team felt this was odd (not least because, at this point, the study was far from finished) and we were slightly irritated by this interference.

When Dixon had returned from Japan, we asked him how the meeting had been. He said the JH sponsors had received him extremely well and had appreciated his presentation of our preliminary findings. As an ‘aside’, he mentioned something quite extraordinary: he, his wife and his three kids had all flown business class paid for by the sponsors of our trial. This, we all felt, was an overt abuse of potential research funds, unethical and totally out of line with academic behaviour. Recently, I found this fascinating clip on youtube, and I wonder whether it was filmed when Dr Dixon visited Japan on that occasion. One does get the impression that the Johrei organisation is not short of money.

A few months later, I duly reported this story to my dean, Prof Tooke, who was about to get involved with Dr Dixon in connection with a postgraduate course on integrated medicine for our medical school (more about this episode here or in my book). He agreed with me that such a thing was a most regrettable violation of academic and ethical standards. To my great surprise, he then asked me not to tell anybody about it. Today I feel very little loyalty to either of these two people and have therefore decided to publish my account – which, by the way, is fully documented as I have kept all relevant records and a detailed diary (in case anyone should feel like speaking to libel lawyers).

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