MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices. Their common denominator is the belief in a mystical ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today energy healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in the US as well as in many other countries.

Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which is distinct from the concept of energy understood in physics and refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be but a veneer of pseudo-science. The ‘energy’ that energy healers refer to is not measurable and lacks biological plausibility.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of energy healing (EH) therapy prior to and following posterior surgical correction for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) compared to controls.

Patients were prospectively randomized to one of two groups: standard operative care for surgery (controls) vs. standard care with the addition of three EH sessions. The outcomes included visual analog scales (VAS) for pain and anxiety (0-10), days until conversion to oral pain medication, and length of hospital stay. For the experimental group, VAS was assessed pre- and post-EH session.

Fifty patients were enrolled-28 controls and 22 EH patients. The controls had a median of 12 levels fused vs. 11 in the EH group (p = 0.04). Pre-operative thoracic and lumbar curve magnitudes were similar (p > 0.05). Overall VAS pain scores increased from pre- to post-operative (p < 0.001), whereas the VAS anxiety scores decreased immediately post-operative (p < 0.001). The control and pre-EH assessments were statistically similar. Significant decreases in VAS pain and anxiety scores from pre to post-EH assessments were noted for the EH group. Both groups transitioned to oral pain medication a median of 2 days post-operative (p = 0.11). The median days to discharge were four in the controls and three in the EH group (p = 0.07).

The authors concluded that EH therapy resulted in a decrease in patient’s pre-operative anxiety. Offering this CAM modality may enhance the wellbeing of the patient and their overall recovery when undergoing posterior surgical correction for AIS.

I am getting tired of explaining that this trial design tells us as good as nothing about the effects of the tested therapy per se. As we have discussed ad nauseam on this blog, A+B is always more than B alone. Such trials appear to be rigorous and fool many people, but they are unable to control for context effects, like placebo or attention. Therefore, I need to re-write the conclusions:

The placebo effect and the extra attention associated with EH therapy resulted in a decrease in patients’ pre-operative anxiety. EH itself is most likely bar any effect. Further studies in this area are not required.

3 Responses to Energy healing decreases preoperative anxiety? No, not true!

  • yes more highly implausible tosh being subjected to “scientific” scrutiny. For some unknown reason this particular kind of nonsense is very popular among nurses who really ought to know better. I wonder if that was the case here as it occurred in a hospital setting?

    I wonder how one might go about bringing more scepticism to bear upon nurses’ thinking?

    • Your mention of the popularity of “energy medicine” with nurses reminds me of a meeting I had with a hospital director who contacted me because of my experience as a chiropractor and acupuncturist …and alt-med generally. He explained that many of the nurses were doing Reiki Therapy on the patients and expressed an interest in expanding the role of in-house alt-med.

      I asked him if he had any concerns about any liability issues that might arise as a result of all the Reiki therapy being used in the hospital. After all, I explained, since you have no idea how “energy medicine” works and what the therapy is doing, you really won’t be able to defend yourself when a patient BLAMES the Reiki Therapy for anything that goes south during their treatment. After all, I added, if you argue all that hand-waving couldn’t _possibly_ do anything as your defense, then you have bigger problems letting all your nurses get their healing fantasies all over the hospital carpet.

      He looked at me like I had just taken off my clothes and jumped in a cactus.

      ~TEO.

    • I have long (as a retired nurse) been very critical of certain standards in nurse training, especially in critical thinking, basic statistics, evaluation of research, even knowing what research actually is. More folk studying something like Trish Greenhalgh’s How to Read a Paper would be a help.

      As a placement supervisor I tried to address this, but was on a hiding to nothing, as the universities responsible for teaching (certainly the couple I had most knowledge of) were unwilling or unable to provide some of the necessary basics.

      Certainly in the UK, these problems start in nurse education and are then compounded by the working culture post-qualification: I often found myself as a lone voice when trying to discuss evidence, research and basic stats.

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