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Passport to Whole Health: Chapter 17

Chapter 17.  Energy Medicine: Biofield Therapies

A close up picture of a compass on a desk.


―Albert Einstein

What Is a Biofield Therapy?

According to one quite-inclusive definition, “The term energy medicine derives from the perceptions and beliefs of therapists and patients that there are subtle, biologic energies that surround and permeate the body.  It is suggested that these energies may be accessed in various ways…for diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.”[1050]

Biofield therapies are based on the idea that beyond being surrounded by energy and vibration, we are energy and vibration.  The nature of how energy, physical reality, and consciousness interconnect is one of the great mysteries of human existence; quantum physics offers some hints about these relationships, but we have much to learn.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of different cultures and traditions worldwide have words in their languages for life energy and have created healing systems that are based on its existence.  Names for this force include qi, chi, prana, pneuma, fohat, mana, and orgone.  Energy medicine is central to healing systems like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (both discussed in Chapter 18).  Bringing about healing through manipulation of life energy is a key element that biofield therapies have in common.[1051]  It has been proposed that the “energy perspective” may be a useful basis for integrating Eastern and Western healing practices.[1052]

Energy medicine is perhaps one of the most mysterious and controversial of all complementary and integrative health (CIH) approaches; it is hard to discuss therapies when we are not clear on their mechanisms of action.  Nevertheless, the Centers for Disease Control found that 0.5% of the U.S. population had used some form of energy medicine in the past year,[1053] and 3.7 million Americans have used energy medicine at some point in their lives.[1054]  The 2015 Healthcare Analysis & Information Group (HAIG) survey found that 39 of 131 (30%) VA systems offer some form of energy medicine to Veterans, up from 7% in 2011.[1055]

Many hospitals incorporate Reiki, Therapeutic Touch (TT), or Healing Touch (HT) into patient care.  They are most often used to help people before or after surgery or cancer treatment.  These approaches are most commonly offered by nursing staff.  Training in various energy medicine modalities varies.  Some practices, such as HT, require 4 or more years of training, and learners must document hundreds of hours of patient care time prior to certification.  In contrast, some forms of Reiki are taught over the course of just a few weekends (though it should be noted other forms of Reiki require years of training to achieve “master” status).  Many biofield therapy practitioners describe what they do as a gift that they have cultivated without formal training.  For many practitioners, their exposure to energy medicine was precipitated by some sort of health crisis or, as some have described it, their “healer’s journey.” 

A list of specific energy healing approaches, with descriptions, is featured in Table 17-1.  The list includes the therapies most frequently used in the U.S., but it is by no means comprehensive.  Reiki, TT, and HT are the most commonly used, so they are listed first.  The Resources listed at the end of this chapter offer much more detail.

Table 17-1.  Popular Biofield Therapies2




Originated in Japan.  Trainees are given “attunements” to allow them to pass universal healing energy through themselves to others.  Works with specific healing symbols.

Healing Touch

Developed in the 1980s by Janet Mentgen, RN.  The hands are used to maneuver the energy field, with a particular emphasis on the chakras.  Extensive instruction and training required for certification.

Therapeutic Touch

Developed by Dolores Krieger, RN and Dora Kunz in the 1970s.  Light touch is used to influence the biofield.  Widely used in hospital settings by nurses.

Acupuncture and acupressure

Needles are inserted into points along meridians, or energy channels, within the body.  In acupressure, the points are stimulated by touch instead.

Barbara Brennan School of Healing

Focuses on energy healing according to detailed descriptions of energy anatomy and flow.  This is an example of an energy healing modality that has been built upon the experiences and techniques of a specific teacher.

Emotional Freedom Technique, Thought Field Therapy

Tapping with the fingers over various meridian points is said to release stored negative emotional energy.  Often classed as a mind-body therapy.  Frequently used in treatment of posttraumatic stress.

Flower essences

Extracts from various flowers are said to influence people according to the energetic nature of the plants they contain.

Polarity Therapy

Combines lifestyle modifications and other techniques to optimize the health of the energy field.

Quantum Touch

Popularized in books by Richard Gordon.  Energy is directed for healing using intention, breathing, and other techniques.  Strong emphasis on treating musculoskeletal conditions, among others.


Often classed as a spiritually based, rather than energetic, modality.  Shamans use rituals, helpful spirits, and journeys to the spirit world, or other techniques to gather information needed to bring about healing.  Shamanic traditions are found in most cultures throughout human history.

Efficacy of Biofield Therapies

More high-quality studies of biofield therapies are needed, but some research findings are available.  A 2011 German review did not find there was enough data to rate the efficacy of various biofield therapies, a typical conclusion for many reviews in this area.[1056]  However, while the Natural Medicines Database also states there is “insufficient reliable evidence to rate” the biofield therapies research for many conditions, it does rate TT as being “Possibly Effective” for anxiety, pain, and stress.[1057]  General reviews and studies of the three most common biofield therapies are listed in this section.  Note that these are based on systematic reviews when possible, but research remains scarce, and nearly every review notes that more studies are required.

General Reviews
  • A 2016 systematic review of energy healing approaches for chronic illness focused on 27 studies with 3159 participants.[1058]  It found that 13 of those studies had statistically significant outcomes for 13 different outcomes, including mood disturbance, fatigue, quality of life, pain, poor coping, health locus of control, anxiety, self-esteem, psychological distress, fatigue, joint function, and vitality.
  • A 2015 review reported that over 30 trials have now been done focusing on energy medicine and pain.  Energy medicine seems to decrease pain intensity, but long-term therapeutic benefits are not clear.[1059] 
  • The same 2015 review noted that over 15 studies of biofield therapies for cancer exist, mostly focused on the treatment of adjunctive symptoms.  Results were most favorable where depression and fatigue were concerned, but only a few studies found clear benefit. 
  • A 2015 review of 30 palliative care-related studies published from 2008-2013 concluded research “...supports the use of biofield therapies in relieving pain, improving quality of life and well-being, and reducing psychological symptoms of stress.”[1060]
  • A 2015 review of biofield therapy studies focused on non-human subjects (plants and cell cultures) found that biofield therapies led to significant improvements in variables related to overall “well-being.”[1061]
  • A 2010 review concluded that, in general, biofield therapies show promise for reducing pain intensity, anxiety, and for people with dementia, level of agitation.[1062]
  • A 2008 Cochrane review concluded from studies of a total of 1,153 patients receiving HT, TT, or Reiki, that pain was reduced at least to a modest degree, by nearly 1 point on a 10-point rating scale.[1063]
  • A research survey done in 2003, which reviewed 2,200 published reports, found that 11 of 19 trials of energy healing which included a total of 1,122 people showed positive effects.[1064]
Therapeutic Touch
  • A small 2019 pilot study (n=29) of people with back pain found a significant and long-term effect on back pain disability scores.[1065]
  • A 2010 study found improvement in pain and fatigue related to chemotherapy.[1066]
  • Another small study found TT decreases pain, cortisol, and levels of natural killer cells in post-operative patients.[1067]
  • A 2016 Cochrane review concluded that “...there is no robust evidence that TT promotes healing of acute wounds,” and the review was ultimately withdrawn one month after publication due to the poor quality of the included studies.[1068]
  • A small 2016 review found that TT shows promise in managing behavior in people with dementia but noted the need for more research data.[1069]
  • Another 2016 review that had 6 of 334 articles meet inclusion criteria found that TT had general benefits for people with cancer.[1070]  Eight years prior, a 2008 review concluded that TT reduces pain and anxiety in people receiving oncology care.[1071]
  • A 2007 Cochrane review did not find any good-quality studies to assess the general effect of TT on anxiety.[1072]
  • In a 2019 study, 99 Reiki practitioners were asked to recruit clients, who completed surveys before and after their sessions.[1073]  The 1411 sessions included in the study were all single visits for different people.  They lasted for 45-90 minutes each.  Significant improvements were found in affect, pain appetite, anxiety, depression, shortness of breath, drowsiness, and nausea.
  • Preliminary results of a 2019 review indicated that Reiki has potential for relieving pain, decreasing anxiety and depression, and improving quality of life in palliative care patients.[1074] 
  • A 2019 Turkish study found that Reiki is effective at controlling preoperative anxiety levels.[1075]
  • A small 2018 meta-analysis that included four studies with a total of 212 participants concluded that Reiki is an effective approach for relieving pain, noting the standardized mean difference of pain ratings for all the studies combined was negative 0.93.[1076]  However, this study was criticized because 95% confidence intervals crossed 0 by a small margin.[1077]
  • A 2015 Cochrane review found there was insufficient evidence to confirm whether or not Reiki is beneficial in people over age 16 with anxiety or depression.[1078]
  • A 2014 review concluded that Reiki “may be effective” for pain and anxiety.[1079]
  • Reiki improved heart rate variability and emotional state for patients admitted to a Yale Hospital cardiology ward.[1080]
  • A 2007 review found that Reiki was beneficial for depression in 1 of 4 studies, chronic pain in 1 of 3 studies, and in the only available study of its use for acute pain.[1081]
  • A 2009 review of 12 studies concluded that 9 found benefit for Reiki for various indications; however, 11 of them were rated as being poor-quality.[1082]
Healing Touch
  • A 2020 study found that HT had a calming effect (based on vital signs) in adult intensive care units at several different hospitals.[1083] 
  • A 2018 observational/retrospective study of 572 cancer outpatients found that HT provided immediate pain relief, as did oncology massage; oncology massage had better odds of pain improvement.[1084]
  • A 2011 systematic review of 5 out of 332 studies that met inclusion criteria concluded, “Though the studies support the potential clinical effectiveness of Healing Touch in improving health-related quality of life in chronic disease management, more studies are required given that even the studies included with high-quality scores had limitations.”[1085]
  • A 2012 study focused 123 combat-exposed, returning, active-duty military personnel with PTSD who were randomized to receive HT and Guided Imagery or treatment as usual.[1086]  Reductions in PTSD symptoms and depression were significant in the treatment group.
  • In patients recovering from cardiac bypass surgery, HT decreased anxiety and length of stay.  It did not affect use of pain medications or antiemetics.[1087] 
  • In 78 women with gynecologic cancers undergoing radiation therapy, HT improved vitality and physical function and decreased pain.[1088]

Safety of Biofield Therapies

Even though more research is needed, biofield therapies are relatively free of adverse effects.1,2,8  We know that many chronic diseases are exacerbated by anxiety and stress, so if energy modalities are effective in helping patients to relax, they may be worth considering, especially if patients prefer them.  There are no reports of these therapies leading to morbidity of any significant duration.  Problems may arise if a person defers vital biomedical interventions for an extended period of time to pursue energy modalities in their place. 

During an energy medicine session, a patient may perceive physical sensations, such as tingling, temperature changes, pressure, or other sensory impressions.  Pain is unlikely.  Intense emotional experiences and memories may also surface, so energy medicine should be used with care in people with severe mental health disorders or a history of trauma.

Biofield therapies can be useful adjuncts to other approaches to care, and they can also be helpful as stand-alone therapies.  We still have much to learn about them, but many studies show promise, and they tend to be quite safe.  The million-dollar question is, will we ever come to understand their mechanism(s) of action?

Energy Medicine Resources

  • Biofield Therapies, Adam Rindfleisch, in: Rakel D, ed.  Integrative Medicine, 4th ed, (2017)
  • Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, Carolyn Myss (1996)
  • Energy Medicine for Women: Aligning Your Body's Energies to Boost Your Health and Vitality, Donna Eden (2008)
  • Energy Medicine: Balancing Your Body's Energies for Optimal Health, Joy, and Vitality, Donna Eden (2008)
  • Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, James Oschman (2002)
  • Hands of Light: A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field, Barbara Brennan (1993)
  • Healing, Intention and Energy Medicine: Science, Research Methods, and Clinical Implications, Wayne Jonas (2003)
  • Light Emerging: The Journey of Personal Healing, Barbara Brennan (1993)
  • Quantum Touch: The Power to Heal, Richard Gordon (2006)
  • Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner's Guide, Sandra Ingerman (2008)
  • The Energy Healing Experiments: Science Reveals Our Natural Power to Heal, Gary Schwartz (2008)
  • The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, Lynne McTaggart.(2008)
  • The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy, Cyndi Dale (2009)
  • Wheels of Light: Chakras, Auras, and the Healing Energy of the Body, Roslyn Bruyere (1994)
Other Resources
  • Self-Healing with Energy Medicine (Self-Healing CD Series), Andrew Weil (2009)
  • The Healing Field: Exploring Energy & Consciousness (2016).  Available for online streaming