(by Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP)
This blog is a brief synthesis of a 2009 literature review by Shamini Jain and Paul Mills on the effects of biofield interventions (such as Reiki, therapeutic touch, and healing touch) for various problems such as pain and anxiety in a variety of populations (e.g. people with acute pain, cancer, heart disease). The authors did not review any energy psychology literature.
The authors reviewed and rated the quality of 66 studies. This was not a meta analysis of these studies. It was a systematic review. The authors stated that the studies were too diverse to use a meta-analysis approach.
- Overall the studies had medium level of quality, and generally met the minimum standards for validity of inferences.
- Biofield therapies showed strong evidence for reducing pain intensity in pain populations, and moderate evidence for reducing pain intensity in hospitalized and cancer populations.
- There was moderate evidence for biofield therapies’ ability to reduce negative behavioral symptoms in dementia and decrease anxiety for hospitalized populations.
- There was equivocal evidence for these therapies’ ability to make beneficial effects on fatigue and quality of life for cancer patients.
- There was also equivocal evidence for biofield therapies’ ability to influence comprehensive pain outcomes and affect in pain patients, and for decreasing anxiety in cardiovascular patients.
What do these findings mean?
By 2009 there were 66 studies that met the inclusion criteria for this review. Until I read this report I did not know that. It is important for us to recognize that energy-healing methods are being studied through the lens of the scientific method, regardless of the outcome. Why is this important? When done properly, scientific methods help us understand what is effective and what is not effective.
Science is not a perfect vehicle for assessing the effectiveness of new techniques, and it usually runs far behind the clinical or healing world. For example, it has only been in the last few years that we have known scientifically that meditation changes the brain. However, spiritual adepts have known for thousands of years that meditation changes consciousness. This is to be expected. It is not easy to create conditions to measure and control the variables involved.
You can consider the scientific method to be a “language” that helps us communicate with other people and provides structures that enable us to speak the same language. To the extent that we want energy psychology and other energy healing methods to become part of mainstream healthcare, we need to be able to speak the language of the people in those systems. And they speak the language of science.
Furthermore, the more fluent we become in scientific discourse, the more we can use this language to become more clear about what we are doing as practitioners.
The Jain and Mills review points to several clinical areas where there is strong to moderate evidence that biofield therapies can be useful. This suggests that practitioners can be more confident with clients about the potential of help in those areas. It also suggests that in the areas where there is less evidence, there either needs to be a change in the way these things are studied or the clinical methodologies should change. Perhaps people need a stronger or longer dose of biofield therapy. Perhaps a different biofield therapy is needed. Perhaps another therapy might be more beneficial, either by itself or in conjunction with biofield therapy. For example, anxiety in cardiovascular patients might respond better to biofield therapies if they were also treated with energy psychology for the trauma of the specific cardiovascular event (e.g a heart attack).
The bottom line: this is a very interesting time. There is growing interest in studying energy healing methods. There is growing information about the effectiveness of energy healing methods. One of the biggest problems we have now is being able to track all the information and put it into a context and narrative. Hopefully this chapter of the blog has done a bit of that.
Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP
ACEP Executive Director
P.S. One final thought. It is interesting that the authors did not include any review of the energy psychology literature. I am not saying this was wrong or a problem. However, it does raise some interesting questions about how we categorize our selves and our “cousins” (or is it brothers and sisters?). The questions are interesting both internally within the field(s) as well as externally – how we are perceived by the rest of the world.
You can read the entire article here.
Jain, S. & Mills, P. (2009) Biofield Therapies: Helpful or Full of Hype? A Best Evidence Synthesis. Int J Behav Med. 2010 Mar; 17(1): 1–16.
Published online 2009 Oct 24. doi: 10.1007/s12529-009-9062-4