Alternative medicine is diverse. Some of its healing practices, like the modern use of herbs, are difficult to tell apart from conventional medicine. Others completely contradict the principles of biomedical science. These latter therapies, often collectively referred to as energy medicine, are based on the existence of a vital energy or life force, which is integral to all living things.
According to this view, when this energy is properly balanced and distributed, the life it sustains is healthy and functions in harmony with nature. Illness occurs when it becomes deficient, excessive, or blocked in its flow. Therapies like acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and meditation strive to manipulate this energy to maintain or restore its balance.
However, some scientists and doctors are uncomfortable with the notion of vital energy. In Western science, the concept was discarded centuries ago when the basic principles of physics and chemistry were discovered. They believe that testable, scientific theories are enough to fully explain life, health, and disease.
Energy medicine has been slow to enter the mainstream precisely because of its nonconformity with the scientific points of view of the last 200 years. As a result, fewer patients have access to these therapies. Intrigued by energy medicine's results, a growing number of researchers and clinicians are offering scientific explanations for its effects.
Let's consider 3 examples:
Acupuncture is based in part on the concept of "qi"—pronounced chi.. This is the supposed vital force that is spread through all living things. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, health is a manifestation of well-balanced qi that flows freely through specific channels in the body called meridians. Illness results from a deficiency or overabundance of qi, or from a stagnation or obstruction in its flow. By placing small needles into these meridians at various locations, an acupuncturist attempts to restore or maintain a balanced flow of vital energy.
The Chinese developed this sophisticated system of healing through insights derived by intuition and meditation as well as observations of numerous patients over several millennia. However, while many Western-oriented scientists respect the painstaking work of these early Chinese practitioners, they do not accept the concept of qi as an explanation for acupuncture's effects.
The primary reason for this is simple: there is no corollary for qi in biological science. Qi does not correspond to the flow of blood in veins, the electrochemical forces carried by nerves, or any other obvious physiologic process. Also, modern science has shown that due to the placebo effect and bias on the part of the observer, it is difficult to tell whether a treatment works without performing double-blind studies.
Nonetheless, some modern scientific studies do hint at real benefits with acupuncture. To explain acupuncture's apparent effects, some doctors and acupuncturists are developing medical acupuncture, based on modern day biomedical principles rather than the flow of qi. Their research is beginning to shed scientific light on what may account for acupuncture's effects on pain and other symptoms.
The ancient observation of the power of touch has inspired many healing traditions. Qi Gong and Reiki are 2 well-known examples originating in the East, while therapeutic touch, a nursing tradition, has its origins in the West. These practices share a common fundamental principle: the ability of a practitioner's mind and hands to manipulate vital energy and transfer it from one person to another.
Unlike other manual healing techniques, such as chiropractic and massage, the practitioner need not and often does not actually touch the patient. This supports the fact that the medium being manipulated is not tangible matter, but a form of bioenergy that flows from all living things.
Advocates of therapeutic touch often cite everyday experiences to illustrate this energy. Imagine you return home at the end of the day to find a family member doing the dishes. His or her back is turned, so you cannot see a facial expression. Nevertheless, even without any visual or auditory cues, you become instantly aware of his or her emotional state. They claim that it can be explained by the existence of a pervasive energy detectable by those who choose to notice. Practitioners of therapeutic touch claim they can perceive the nature of this energy and use it to heal.
However, there are other explanations possible for this apparent perception that do not invoke energy fields: body language, sounds, and motions. Scientific studies have failed to identify the field that therapeutic touch practitioners claim to observe.
Ancient healers did not distinguish between mind and body, and many of their modern counterparts believe that the mind, not the body, ultimately determines life and health. Meditation is one of many similar interventions that use conscious thought to influence both mind and body, often through a state of heightened relaxation. Either on their own, or coaxed along by a practitioners' suggestions, patients concentrate on words, ideas, or images to facilitate healing.
Most doctors readily acknowledge the mind's influence on health. However, they dispute the existence of a conscious energy. Instead, they turn to neuroscientists who have been documenting the complex pathways linking the brain with the rest of the body and have even been able to map various emotions and thoughts to specific regions of the brain. According to the biomedical view, observable neurologic processes, rather than an immutable vital force, accounts for the power of the mind over the body.
Channeling Your Energy
Some argue that as long as a therapy is effective and safe, it makes no difference how it works. Others are not comfortable accepting the validity of any healing intervention without a concrete scientific explanation. This debate will certainly continue for some time.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
- Review Date: 06/2017 -
- Update Date: 07/14/2015 -