What is energy medicine?

Quick Answer
The manipulation of energy fields to promote health and well-being.
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The notion of energy medicine is an ancient one, growing out of such concepts as the traditional Chinese medicine principle qi (or chi), the life force that motivates the universe and informs all beings, and related to such modalities as acupuncture, organized around the body’s electromagnetic meridians. The term “energy medicine” is, however, of recent coinage. Apparently, it had first been used as a term of art in conjunction with a 1987 conference in Madras, India, sponsored by the John E. Fetzer Foundation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, dedicated to promoting mind/body medicine. Two years later, drawing on work on psychophysiological self-regulation (also known as biofeedback) demonstrated at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, researchers T. M. Srinivasan, Elmer Green, and Carol Schneider founded the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM), now based in Arvada, Colorado.

ISSSEEM, with its mission to improve human health and welfare, differentiates between therapeutic energy medicine involving tangible forces such as electromagnetic fields, acoustics, and gravity, and traditional subtle energies such as qi, Prana (breath of life), and homeopathic resonance, all of which operate at the level of the subtle or etheric body and are difficult to measure. The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which recognizes energy medicine as one of five domains of complementary and alternative medicine, similarly distinguishes between “veritable” energy fields, which can be measured for diagnosis and treatment, and “putative” energy fields (also called biofields), which resist measurement by reproducible methods. NCCAM cites magnet therapy and light therapy as examples of the former and qigong and healing touch as examples of the latter.

A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that approximately 1 percent of Americans have used energy medicine techniques. It is worth noting, however, that almost one-half of all Americans use some form of alternative medicine in a given year. As energy medicine advocates emphasize, there is considerable overlap between energy medicine and NCCAM’s other four domains: whole medical systems, such as homeopathy and naturopathy; mind/body medicine, such as biofeedback and meditation; biological practices involving substances such as herbs and nutraceuticals; and manipulative, body-based practices such as massage and chiropractic.

Theory and Practice

Energy medicine as it is understood today addresses both electromagnetic energy and more subtle energies, which together make up the body’s dynamic infrastructure. Physical and mental health depend upon keeping these various energies balanced and free flowing. These energies may become blocked by environmental interference from such things as toxins and electromagnetic pollution, and by internal factors such as prolonged physical or mental stress. Flow, balance, and harmony can be reestablished by manipulating specific energy points on the skin with exercises involving tapping, massaging, pinching, or twisting, or by manually tracing energy pathways over the skin. Alternatively, one can, as in certain types of yoga exercises, assume postures designed to affect the body’s energies in specific ways. In addition, mental focusing exercises akin to meditation can help to realign both tangible and subtle energy.

Western medicine has long recognized and made use of the body’s oscillating magnetic fields, developing sophisticated technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners and bone healing electronic stimulators to help diagnose and treat physical disorders. Acupuncture, long considered a type of quackery, is now widely accepted as an effective, if still somewhat misunderstood, method for addressing pain. It is not terribly difficult, even for skeptics, to make the connection between such machines and modalities.

Acceptance of the existence of biofields, and, especially, the ability to intentionally influence them, remains profoundly controversial. However, the discovery of peptides and opiate receptors in the human brain, the molecules of emotion, has cleared the way for a burgeoning new field of inquiry: energy psychology. Considered a derivative of energy medicine, energy psychology is rooted in an assumption that mental disorders are related to disruptions in the body’s energy fields. Energy psychology consists of a set of physical and cognitive procedures designed to influence emotion, cognition, and behavior.

Positive reactions to energy medicine treatment can be difficult to quantify or verify and have often been attributed to the placebo effect or to cognitive dissonance. Positive research outcomes have been similarly discounted as resulting from practitioner or publication bias. Also, energy medicine, like any medical field (particularly any alternative medicine modality), is fraught with fraud. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned two devices purporting to heal with the use of energy medicine: the EPFX and the PAP-IMI.


Eden, Donna, and David Feinstein. Energy Medicine. New York: Tarcher, 1999. Eden, an energy medicine practitioner, and Feinstein, a psychologist, provide a comprehensive self-help guide to treating physical and emotional maladies.

International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine. http://www.issseem.org. Aims to promote energy medicine through research, publications, and conferences.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam. An overview of NCCAM’s definition of “alternative and complementary medicine,” including energy medicine.

Oschman, James L. Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 2000. This book presents scientific research supporting and explaining the concept of and various practices employed in energy medicine.

Pert, Candace B. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Pert’s book describes her role in the discovery of the brain’s opiate receptors and provides scientific support for mind/body medicine by linking molecules with the psyche.

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