Bioenergy (or energy healing) therapies are among the popular alternative treatment options for many diseases, including cancer. Many studies deal with the advantages and disadvantages of bioenergy therapies as an addition to established treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation in the treatment of cancer. However, a systematic overview of this evidence is thus far lacking. For this reason, German authors reviewed and critically examined the evidence to determine what benefits the treatments have for patients.
In June 2022, a systematic search was conducted searching five electronic databases (Embase, Cochrane, PsychInfo, CINAHL and Medline) to find studies concerning the use, effectiveness, and potential harm of bioenergy therapies including the following modalities:
- Therapeutic Touch,
- Healing Touch,
- Polarity Therapy.
From all 2477 search results, 21 publications with a total of 1375 patients were included in this systematic review. The patients treated with bioenergy therapies were mainly diagnosed with breast cancer. The main outcomes measured were:
- quality of life (QoL),
The studies were predominantly of moderate quality and, for the most part, found no effect. In terms of QoL, pain, and nausea, there were some positive short-term effects of the interventions, but no long-term differences were detectable. The risk of side effects from bioenergy therapies appears to be relatively small.
The authors concluded that considering the methodical limitations of the included studies, studies with high study quality could not find any difference between bioenergy therapies and active (placebo, massage, RRT, yoga, meditation, relaxation training, companionship, friendly visit) and passive control groups (usual care, resting, education). Only studies with a low study quality were able to show significant effects.
Energy healing is as popular as it is implausible. What these ‘healers’ call ‘energy’ is not how it is defined in physics. It is an undefined, imagined entity that exists only in the imagination of its proponents. So why should it have an effect on cancer or any other condition?
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. Popular forms of energy healing include those listed above. Each of these are discussed and referenced in separate chapters of this book.
- 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.
- Considering its implausibility, energy healing has attracted a surprisingly high level of research activity. Its findings are discussed in the respective chapters of each of the specific forms of energy healing.
- Generally speaking, the methodologically best trials of energy healing fail to demonstrate that it generates effects beyond placebo.
- Even though energy healing is per se harmless, it can do untold damage, not least because it significantly undermines rational thought in our societies.
As you can see, I do not entirely agree with my German friends on the issue of harm. I think energy healing is potentially dangerous and should be discouraged.
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.
The authors offer the following conclusions:
After 45 years of study, scientific evidence of the value of TT as a complementary intervention in the management of any condition still remains immature and inconclusive:
- Given the mixed result, lack of replication, overall research quality, and significant issues of bias identified, there currently exists no good-quality evidence that supports the implementation of TT as an evidence‐based clinical intervention in any context.
- Research over the past decade exhibits the same issues as earlier work, with highly diverse poor quality unreplicated studies mainly published in alternative health media.
- As the nature of human biofield energy remains undemonstrated, and that no quality scientific work has established any clinically significant effect, more plausible explanations of the reported benefits are from wishful thinking and use of an elaborate theatrical placebo.
These are clear and much-needed words addressed at nurses (the paper was published in a nursing journal). Nurses have been oddly fond of TT. Therefore, it seems important to send evidence-based information in their direction. In my recent book, I arrived at similar conclusions about TT:
- The assumptions that form the basis for TT are not biologically plausible.
- Several trials and reviews of TT have emerged. However, many of them are by ardent proponents of TT, seriously flawed, and thus less than reliable. e.g.,
- One rigorous pre-clinical study, co-designed by a 9-year-old girl, found that experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator’s “energy field.” Their failure to substantiate TT’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified. 
- There are no reasons to assume that TT causes direct harm. One could, however, argue that, like all forms of paranormal healing, it undermines rational thinking.
I was notified via Twitter (thank you John) that the UK ‘United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust’ is looking to employ a spiritual healer or reiki therapist. For those who find this perhaps too hard to believe, I have copied a few excerpts from the advertisement:
- United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust
- Spiritual Healer / Reiki Therapist
- Lincoln County Hospital, Lincoln
- £21,892 – £24,157 per annum pro rata
An exciting opportunity has arisen for an Spiritual Healer / Reiki Therapist to join our friendly and energetic team on Waddington Unit. We are looking for a committed, enthusiastic and a self-motivated therapist to join our well established team.
Waddington Unit is a 26 bedded acute Haematology and Oncology ward that care for male and female patients. The ward has a high acuity, fast paced clinical admissions setting that cares for acutely unwell patients as a result of haematological and oncological conditions such as spinal cord compression and neutropenic sepsis as well as facilitating the delivery of chemotherapy.
We are passionate about improving patient experience and enhancing patients stay in hospital.
We are pleased to be working with The Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust to offer this exciting opportunity on Waddington Unit.
If you are qualified and experienced as a Spiritual Healer /Reiki Therapist with 1 year or more of experience. To have completed the Healing In Hospital course, delivered by Angie Buxton-King and would like this opportunity to join this forward thinking team then please contact the co-ordinator for more information and an informal visit…
… ULHT is one of the largest hospital trusts in the country providing a comprehensive range of hospital based medical, surgical, paediatric, obstetric and gynaecological services to over 800,000 people across the county of Lincolnshire. The Trust’s core values are:
– Patient Centred
– Respect and
END OF QUOTE
The Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust supports cancer patients and their families by providing funds to employ Complementary Therapists (Healers) in the NHS and Hospices. And Angie Buxton-King is a Reiki Master/ Teacher, Spiritual Healer, Author and Public Speaker. She also tells us this about her:
I am a fully qualified tutor of adults in the life learning sector and a Director/Trustee of our charity The Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust ( SBSHT).
Since 2004 following the publication of my first book The NHS Healer; I have been invited to speak at many medical and holistic conferences. I am a past chair of The Doctor Healer Network and a former council member of The College of Medicine representing complementary therapies. Along with my husband Graham we created Energy Healing Training and Reiki Training that complies with National Occupational Standards. We have also created our unique ‘Healing in Hospitals & Hospices Training’ and ‘Delivering Complementary Therapy in a Statutory Setting Training’ to give healers and complementary therapists the necessary skills to work safely and competently in a more formal setting. I was employed by University College London Hospital (UCLH) as a Spiritual Healer to deliver healing to cancer patients as part of an integrated, holistic package of care for 12 years.
David Colquhoun published an excellent comment at the time about the UCLH work. All I want to add here is a list of suggestions to the ‘United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust’ regarding posts they might consider advertising in the future:
- ACUPUNCTURIST to run the department of anaesthesiology.
- FLYING CARPET MANAGER to relieve the over-worked Lincolnshire ambulance service.
- EXORCIST to deal with whistle blowers of all types.
- ALCHEMIST to turn lead into gold whenever the Trust runs into financial difficulties.
- HOMEOPATH to run the hospital pharmacy.
- QUANTUM PHYSICIST to maintain the ventilators of the IC unit.
- VIRTUAL SURGEON to head the department of surgery.
- VAMPIRE to organise the blood donation activities.
- DISCIPLE OF ANDREW WAKEFIELD to coordinate the Trust’s vaccination service.
- PRO-LIFE ACTIVIST to head the abortion service.
- SCIENTOLOGIST to run the spiritual well-being initiative.
- PSEUDOSCIENTIST to head the clinical trials unit.
- CAOS THEORIST to oversee the accounts.
- ELEPHANT to work in the porcelain shop.
In the interest of improving public health in Lincolnshire, I invite my readers to suggest further posts which might contribute profitably to the success of the ‘United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust’.
Need a last minute X-mas present?
I might have just the right thing for you: Healing Courses Online.
They are run by true professionals who clearly know what they are doing: The founders of The Online Bio Energy Healing Training Course are John Donohoe and Patricia Hesnan, both of whom have been working in the alternative complementary healing area for over 25 years. Our healing centre clinic has been involved in teaching, development and trainings since it was first established in 1990, and we continue to promote and hold our regular live training courses.
Healing Courses Online is registered with the CMA (Complementary Medical Association), which is internationally recognized as the leading organization in professional, ethical complementary medicine by professional practitioners, therapists, and the public in general. Having completed this course, you can apply for membership of the CMA which offers a number of benefits including supplying professional accreditation. The CAM industry does not have a single regulatory body at present. With this in mind here at Oisin Centre Limited and Healing Courses Online we provide certification and training of the highest standards and expect our students to adhere to all statutory regulations, standards and codes of ethics regarding professional practice as therapists. You can feel safe in the knowledge that we are an experienced and trusted provider of Energy Healing training courses.
AND HERE ARE THE DETAILS AND PRICE-TAGS OF 4 COURSES:
A diploma course in energy healing. It includes 58 professional video lessons, 8 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course you receive a Certified Diploma in Energy Healing. Once you have the knowledge and understand how to apply this energy healing therapy you can help yourself and others to activate the body’s own natural process of self-healing.
€97.00 – Was €375.00
A diploma course in sound healing. It includes 37 professional video lessons, 18 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course, you receive a Certified Diploma in Sound Healing. Learn the secrets to sound healing with Tibetan singing bowls, Chinese gong, Tuning forks, the Human Voice, plus energy healing clearing for chakras plus much more.
€69.00 – Was €275.00
A diploma course in animal energy healing. It includes 30 practical video lessons and 5 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages. When you have completed the course, you receive a Certified Diploma in Animal Healing. This is an ideal course to learn how you can help your pet or any animal so they may be healthy, happy and content.
€59.00 – Was €225.00
SELF HEALING / SELF HELP ONLINE COURSE includes 24 professional video lessons, plus 20 PDF lectures in a carefully constructed A, B, C, step-by-step format, allowing you to learn each technique and each application in easy stages and certification of completion. You can view a video with simple Qi-Gong exercises filmed at picturesque Galway Bay in Ireland. The aim of using singing bowls, crystal bowls, tuning forks, healing music, or the human voice as a self healing modality is to help restore the body to its normal.
€19.99 – Was €199.00
IN CASE YOU WONDER WHAT YOU CAN DO ONCE YOU HAVE PASSED ONE OF THOSE COURSES, THE COURSE DIRECTORS GIVE IT TO YOU STRAIGHT:
Energy healing can be used as a standalone therapy or in conjunction with many other modalities including counselling, psychotherapy, hypnosis, acupuncture, massage, reflexology, and many more.
As soon as you have completed the course plus a short 10 question test, you will be granted your diploma, which you can download and print. (Your diploma is also automatically sent to your email account.)
On this blog and elsewhere, my critics regularly complain that I do not have any qualifications in alternative medicine. Therefore, I am tempted to enrol (as a generous and high-value X-mas present to myself) – even though I am still uncertain which of the 4 courses might be best for me (and, of course, I cannot be sure to pass the ’10 question test’!).
How about you?
Will you join me?
Daniel P Wirth used to be THE star amongst researchers and proponents of paranormal healing. About 15 years ago, there was nobody who had published more studies of it than Wirth. The extraordinary phenomenon was not just the number of studies, but also the fact that these trials all reported positive findings.
At the time, this puzzled me a lot. I had conducted two trials of paranormal healing myself; and, in both, cases the results had turned out to be negative (see here and here). Thus I made several attempts to contact Wirth or his co-authors hoping to better understand the phenomenon. Yet I never received a reply and became increasingly suspicious of their research.
In 2004, it was announced that Wirth together with one of his co-workers had been arrested and later imprisoned for fraud. Several of his 20 papers published in various journals were subsequently withdrawn. I remember writing to several journal editors myself urging them to follow suit so that, in future, the literature would not be polluted with dubious studies. Eventually, we all forgot about the whole story.
Recently, I took a renewed interest in paranormal healing. To my surprise, I found that several of Wirth’s papers are still listed on Medline:
Cha KY, Wirth DP.
J Reprod Med. 2001 Sep;46(9):781-7. Erratum in: J Reprod Med. 2004 Oct;49(10):100A. Lobo, RA [removed].
Wirth DP, Cram JR, Chang RJ.
J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Summer;3(2):109-18.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
J Altern Complement Med. 1997 Winter;3(4):355-64.
Wirth DP, Richardson JT, Eidelman WS.
J Altern Complement Med. 1996 Winter;2(4):493-502. Review.
Soc Sci Med. 1995 Jul;41(2):249-60.
Int J Psychosom. 1995;42(1-4):48-53.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):68-75.
Wirth DP, Barrett MJ.
Int J Psychosom. 1994;41(1-4):61-7.
Wirth DP, Cram JR.
Int J Psychosom. 1993;40(1-4):47-55.
Of these 9 papers, only the first one in the list carries a note indicating that the paper has been removed. In other words, 8 of Wirth’s articles are still available as though they are fine and proper.
The situation is even worse on ‘Research Gate’. Here we find all of the following articles with no indication of any suspicion of fraud:
KY Cha ·· RA Lobo
Abstract: To assess the potential effect of intercessory prayer (IP) on pregnancy rates in women being treated with in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer (IVF-ET). Prospective, double-blind, randomized clinical trial in which patients and providers were not informed about the intervention. Statisticians and investigators were masked until all the data had been collected and clinical outcomes were known. The setting was an IVF-ET program at Cha Hospital, Seoul, Korea. IP was carried out by prayer…
Article · Oct 2001 · The Journal of reproductive medicine
Daniel P. Wirth
Article · Apr 1997 · Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram
Abstract: A comparative analysis was conducted on a series of three experimental studies that examined the effect of various local and nonlocal (distant) complementary healing methods on multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) and autonomic measures. The series concentrated sEMG electrode placement on specific neuromuscular paraspinal centers (cervical [C4], thoracic [T6], and lumbar [L3]), along with the frontalis region, due to the fact that these sites corresponded to the location of individual…
Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Jeffrey R. Cram · Richard J. Chang
Abstract: The influence of complementary healing treatment on paraspinal electromagnetic activity at specific neuromuscular sites was examined in an exploratory pilot study that used a multisite surface electromyographic (sEMG) assessment procedure. The study was a replication and extension of previous research that indicated that complementary healing had a significant effect in normalizing the activity of the “end organ” for the central nervous system (CNS). Multisite sEMG electrodes were placed on…
Article · Feb 1997 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · Robert D. Martinez · William S. Eidelman · Maria E.L. Lopez
Abstract: The study described here utilized a randomized double-blind methodological protocol in order to examine the effect of non-contact therapeutic touch (NCTT) on the healing rate of full-thickness human dermal wounds. This study is the fifth experiment in a series of extensions based on the original research design, and is an exact methodological replication of the second study in the series. Thirty-two healthy subjects were randomly divided into treatment and control groups and biopsies were…
Article · Oct 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman
Abstract: A series of five innovative experiments conducted by Wirth et al. which examined the effect of various complementary healing interventions on the reepithelialization rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was assessed as to specific methodological and related factors. The treatment interventions utilized in the series included experimental derivatives of the Therapeutic Touch (TT), Reiki, LeShan, and Intercessory Prayer techniques. The results of the series indicated statistical…
Article · Feb 1996 · The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Richard J. Chang · William S. Eidelman · Joanne B. Paxton
Abstract: The effect of Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, LeShan, and Qigong Therapy in combination on haematological measures was examined in an exploratory pilot study utilizing a randomized, double-blind, within-subject, crossover design. Fourteen subjects were randomly assigned to treatment and control conditions for two one-hour evaluation sessions separated by a 24-hour period. Six blood samples were taken from each subject — three during the treatment condition and three during the control condition —…
Article · Jan 1996 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth
Abstract: Historically, traditional cultures recognized the importance of belief and expectancy within the healing encounter and created complex rituals and ceremonies designed to elicit or foster the expectancy and participation of both the healer and patient, as well as the community as a whole. This holistic approach to health care was a fundamental component in the spiritual healing rituals of virtually all traditional native cultures. The focus of the current study was to assess the impact of…
Article · Aug 1995 · Social Science & Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Margaret J Barrett · William S. Eidelman
Abstract: The results demonstrated a non-significant effect for the treatment versus control groups. Several factors may have contributed to the non-significance, including: the ineffectiveness of the healers, the inhibitive or dampening effect of plastic, the use of self-regulatory techniques, the dependent variable examined, the type of dressing utilized, the influence of distance, and the healers’ belief as to the effect of distance. Future studies would benefit by examining the methodological…
Article · Oct 1994 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · David R. Brenlan · Richard J. Levine · Christine M. Rodriguez
Abstract: This study utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design to examine the effect of Reiki and LeShan healing in combination on iatrogenic pain experienced after unilateral operative extraction of the lower third molar. Two separate operations were performed on 21 patients with bilateral, asymptomatic, impacted lower third molar teeth. The patients were randomly assigned to the treatment or control condition prior to the first operation. For the second operation,…
Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
Daniel P. Wirth · Joseph T. Richardson · William S. Eidelman · Alice C. O’Malley
Abstract: The effect of non-contact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy on the healing rate of full thickness human dermal wounds was examined in a double-blind, placebo controlled study. Punch biopsies were performed on the lateral deltoid in 24 healthy subjects who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Active and control treatments were comprised of daily sessions of 5 min of exposure to a hidden NCTT practitioner or control exposure. Placebo effects and the possible influences of…
Article · Jul 1993 · Complementary Therapies in Medicine
DANIEL P. WIRTH · CATHY A. JOHNSON · JOSEPH S. HORVATH
Article · Jan 1992
DANIEL P. WIRTH · BARBARA J. MITCHELL
Abstract: The effect of Noncontact Therapeutic Touch (NCTT) therapy and Intercessory Prayer (IP) on patient determined insulin dosage was exam- ined in an exploratory pilot study which utilized a randomized, double-blind, within subject, crossover design. Sixteen type I diabetes mellitus patients were examined and treated daily by NCTT and IP healers for a duration of two weeks. Each patient underwent two separate sessions-one in the treat- ment condition and one in the control condition-with the…
What is even worse, Wirth’s papers continue to get cited. In other words, Wirth’s research lives on regardless of the fact that it is highly dubious.
In my view, it is long over-due for all journal-editors to fully and completely delete Wirth’s dubious papers. This is particularly true since several experts have alerted them to the problem. Furthermore, I submit that failing to take action amounts to unethical behaviour which is quite simply unacceptable.
Therapeutic Touch is a therapy mostly popular with nurses. We have discussed it before, for instance here, here, here and here. To call it implausible would be an understatement. But what does the clinical evidence tell us? Does it work?
This literature review by Iranian authors was aimed at critically evaluating the data from clinical trials examining the clinical efficacy of therapeutic touch as a supportive care modality in adult patients with cancer.
Four electronic databases were searched from the year 1990 to 2015 to locate potentially relevant peer-reviewed articles using the key words therapeutic touch, touch therapy, neoplasm, cancer, and CAM. Additionally, relevant journals and references of all the located articles were manually searched for other potentially relevant studies.
The number of 334 articles was found on the basis of the key words, of which 17 articles related to the clinical trial were examined in accordance with the objectives of the study. A total of 6 articles were in the final dataset in which several examples of the positive effects of healing touch on pain, nausea, anxiety and fatigue, and life quality and also on biochemical parameters were observed.
The authors concluded that, based on the results of this study, an affirmation can be made regarding the use of TT, as a non-invasive intervention for improving the health status in patients with cancer. Moreover, therapeutic touch was proved to be a useful strategy for adult patients with cancer.
This review is badly designed and poorly reported. Crucially, its conclusions are not credible. Contrary to what the authors stated when formulating their aims, the methods lack any attempt of critically evaluating the primary data.
A systematic review is more than a process of ‘pea counting’. It requires a rigorous assessment of the risk of bias of the included studies. If that crucial step is absent, the article is next to worthless and the review degenerates into a promotional excercise. Sadly, this is the case with the present review.
You may think that this is relatively trivial (“Who cares what a few feeble-minded nurses do?”), but I would disagree: if the medical literature continues to be polluted by such irresponsible trash, many people (nurses, journalists, healthcare decision makers, researchers) who may not be in a position to see the fatal flaws of such pseudo-reviews will arrive at the wrong conclusions and make wrong decisions. This will inevitably contribute to a hindrance of progress and, in certain circumstances, must endanger the well-being or even the life of vulnerable patients.
Distant healing is one of the most bizarre yet popular forms of alternative medicine. Healers claim they can transmit ‘healing energy’ towards patients to enable them to heal themselves. There have been many trials testing the effectiveness of the method, and the general consensus amongst critical thinkers is that all variations of ‘energy healing’ rely entirely on a placebo response. A recent and widely publicised paper seems to challenge this view.
This article has, according to its authors, two aims. Firstly it reviews healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (e.g., studies of plants or cell cultures) that were less susceptible to placebo-like effects. Secondly, it presents a systematic review of clinical trials on human patients receiving distant healing.
All the included studies examined the effects upon a biological system of the explicit intention to improve the wellbeing of that target; 49 non-whole human studies and 57 whole human studies were included.
The combined weighted effect size for non-whole human studies yielded a highly significant (r = 0.258) result in favour of distant healing. However, outcomes were heterogeneous and correlated with blind ratings of study quality; 22 studies that met minimum quality thresholds gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of 0.115.
Whole human studies yielded a small but significant effect size of r = .203. Outcomes were again heterogeneous, and correlated with methodological quality ratings; 27 studies that met threshold quality levels gave an r = .224.
From these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.
In a press release, the authors warned: the data need to be treated with some caution in view of the poor quality of many studies and the negative publishing bias; however, our results do show a significant effect of healing intention on both human and non-human living systems (where expectation and placebo effects cannot be the cause), indicating that healing intention can be of value.
My thoughts on this article are not very complimentary, I am afraid. The problems are, it seems to me, too numerous to discuss in detail:
- The article is written such that it is exceedingly difficult to make sense of it.
- It was published in a journal which is not exactly known for its cutting edge science; this may seem a petty point but I think it is nevertheless important: if distant healing works, we are confronted with a revolution in the understanding of nature – and surely such a finding should not be buried in a journal that hardly anyone reads.
- The authors seem embarrassingly inexperienced in conducting and publishing systematic reviews.
- There is very little (self-) critical input in the write-up.
- A critical attitude is necessary, as the primary studies tend to be by evangelic believers in and amateur enthusiasts of healing.
- The article has no data table where the reader might learn the details about the primary studies included in the review.
- It also has no table to inform us in sufficient detail about the quality assessment of the included trials.
- It seems to me that some published studies of distant healing are missing.
- The authors ignored all studies that were not published in English.
- The method section lacks detail, and it would therefore be impossible to conduct an independent replication.
- Even if one ignored all the above problems, the effect sizes are small and would not be clinically important.
- The research was sponsored by the ‘Confederation of Healing Organisations’ and some of the comments look as though the sponsor had a strong influence on the phraseology of the article.
Given these reservations, my conclusion from an analysis of the primary studies of distant healing would be dramatically different from the one published by the authors: DESPITE A SIZABLE AMOUNT OF PRIMARY STUDIES ON THE SUBJECT, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DISTANT HEALING REMAINS UNPROVEN. AS THIS THERAPY IS BAR OF ANY BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, FURTHER RESEARCH IN THIS AREA SEEMS NOT WARRANTED.
There are many terms for this type of treatment: energy healing, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, spiritual healing and para-normal healing are just some of the better-known ones. These interventions are based of the belief that some sort of ‘energy’ can be channelled by the healer into the body of the patient to assist its capacity for self-healing. Needless to say that their biological plausibility is suspiciously close to zero.
This new study was aimed at testing the effectiveness of energy healing on the well-being of patients and at assessing the influence on the results of participating in a randomized controlled trial. A total of 247 colorectal cancer patients were included in the trial. One half of them were randomized to either:
- healing (RH) or
- control (RC)
The other half of the patients was not randomized and had either:
- self-selected healing (SH) or
- self-selected control condition (SC)
All patients completed questionnaires assessing well-being Quality of Life (QoL), depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality), attitude toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and faith/spirituality at baseline, 1 week, and 2 months post-intervention. Patients were also asked to indicate, at baseline, whether they considered QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality as important outcomes.
Compared with controls, no overall effect of healing were noted on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, or sleep quality in the intervention groups (RH, SH). Effects of healing on mood were only found for patients who initially had a positive attitude toward CAM and considered the outcome in question as important.
The authors of this study arrived at the following conclusions: Whereas it is generally assumed that CAMs such as healing have beneficial effects on well-being, our results indicated no overall effectiveness of energy healing on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality in colorectal cancer patients. Effectiveness of healing on well-being was, however, related to factors such as self-selection and a positive attitude toward the treatment.
Survey after survey shows that ‘energy healing’ is popular amongst cancer patients. But medicine is no popularity contest, and the existing clinical trials have mostly failed to show that these treatments work beyond a sometimes remarkably strong placebo-effect. Consequently, several systematic reviews have arrived at conclusions that were far from positive:
Since the publication of our previous systematic review in 2000, several rigorous new studies have emerged. Collectively they shift the weight of the evidence against the notion that distant healing is more than a placebo
This new and fairly rigorous trial clearly points in the same direction. Thus we a faced with the fact that these treatments are:
- utterly implausible
- not supported by good clinical evidence
What follows seems as simple as it is indisputable: energy healing is nonsense and does not merit further research.
Therapeutic Touch is an alternative therapy which is based on the notion of ‘energy healing’; it is thus akin to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing. A recent survey from Canada suggested that such treatments are incredibly popular: over 50% of the families that were asked admitted using them for kids suffering from cancer.
The therapists using Therapeutic Touch, mostly nurses, believe to be able to channel ‘healing energy’ into the body of the patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the patient’s self-healing potential. Proponents of Therapeutic Touch claim that it is effective for a very wide range of conditions. Here is what one typical website by advocates states: As a healing modality Therapeutic Touch has been shown to be very effective in decreasing anxiety, decreasing stress, evoking the relaxation response, decreasing pain, and promoting wound healing. Therapeutic Touch as a method of healing is used by both professionals in the health field and laymen in the community.
There is a surprising amount of research on Therapeutic Touch. Unfortunately most of it is fatally flawed. It is therefore refreshing to see a new clinical study with a rigorous and straight forward design.
The objective of this trial was to determine whether Therapeutic Touch is efficacious in decreasing pain in preterm neonates. Fifty-five infants < 30 weeks’ gestational age participated in a randomized control trial in two neonatal intensive care units. Immediately before and after a painful heel lance procedure, the therapist performed non-tactile Therapeutic Touch with the infant behind curtains. In the sham condition, the therapist stood by the incubator without performing Therapeutic Touch. The Premature Infant Pain Profile was used for measuring pain and time for heart rate to return to baseline during recovery. Heart rate variability and stress response were secondary outcomes.
The results showed no group differences in any of the outcome measures. Mean Premature Infant Pain Profile scores across 2 minutes of heel lance procedure in 30-second blocks ranged from 7.92 to 8.98 in the Therapeutic Touch group and 7.64 to 8.46 in the sham group. The authors concluded that Therapeutic Touch given immediately before and after heel lance has no comforting effect in preterm neonates. Other effective strategies involving actual touch should be considered.
These findings are hardly surprising considering the implausibility of the ‘principles’ that underlie Therapeutic Touch. Nobody has so far been able to measure the mystical ‘energy’ that is the basis of this treatment. The only Cochrane review failed to show that Therapeutic touch works beyond placebo: There is no robust evidence that TT promotes healing of acute wounds.
Why then is Therapeutic Touch so popular? Part of the answer to this question might lie here: New Age spiritualism has co-opted some of the language of physics, including the language of quantum mechanics, in its quest to make ancient metaphysics sound like respectable science. The New Age preaches enhancing your vital energy, tapping into the subtle energy of the universe,or manipulating your biofield so that you can be happy, fulfilled, successful, and lovable, and so life can be meaningful, significant, and endless. The New Age promises you the power to heal the sick and create reality according to your will, as if you were a god.