Energy Therapies: Overview
Also known by these names:
Biofield energy therapies, also known as subtle energy therapies, rely for their efficacy on energies in and around the human body that we don't understand. For some readers, this may sound like hokum. For others, the reality of these energies is beyond question.
The National Cancer Institute defines energy therapy:1
A form of complementary and alternative medicine based on the belief that a vital energy flows through the human body. The goal of energy therapy is to balance the energy flow in the patient. It is used to reduce stress and anxiety and promote well-being. Energy therapy is being studied in patients receiving cancer therapy, to find out if it can improve quality of life, boost the immune system, or reduce side effects. Also called energy healing.
According to the NCI’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, (OCCAM):2
Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. There are two types:
- Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Examples:
- Electromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current or direct-current fields. Examples:
- Pulsed electromagnetic fields
- Magnet therapy
Acupuncture and Electroacupuncture
Though acupuncture and electroacupuncture are often classified under the CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) categories of Alternative Medical Systems or Traditional Medical Systems, these therapies involve the balancing and manipulation of energy channels, and as such could be considered energy therapies as well. The evidence base for and uses of acupuncture/electroacupuncture are more developed than for other energy therapies. We provide information in a separate summary about acupuncture and electroacupuncture.
Overview of Biofield Therapies
Biofield energy therapies include several techniques, with most energy medicine practitioners aiming to restore the flow of energy fields of the human body to relieve symptoms, restore health and reduce the risk of disease. We do not yet have a good understanding of how these therapies exert their effects.
Most energy medicine practitioners aim to restore the flow of energy fields of the human body to relieve symptoms, restore health and reduce the risk of disease.
Distinctions between Healing Touch, Therapeutic Touch® and Reiki
A review article by Pamela Potter provides a table summarizing the distinctions between Therapeutic Touch®, Healing Touch and Reiki. It includes a description of each practice’s approach to teaching, course levels, mentoring, intentionality, technique, anecdotal benefit, efficacy and safety.
Two of the energy therapy techniques, Therapeutic Touch® and Healing Touch, have a background in nursing. Certification is available to practitioners who meet specific educational and practice criteria. Other biofield therapy practitioners may be unlicensed and/or unregulated.7 Qigong and Reiki practitioners are also trained, but in the style of Master (Sensei) training that is common in Asian martial arts lineages.
Energy Fields and Religion
Some healing practices associated with certain religious traditions—such as laying on of hands—are not included in this summary but can be found in the BCCT summary on Religious and Spiritual Approaches. Energy therapies on this page do not come from a religious source; they are useful within all religious traditions.8
Evidence of Therapeutic Effects
Qigong or Tai Chi: What’s the Difference?
The qi (also spelled chi) is “the life energy that flows through the body’s energy pathways.” Tai chi and qigong both cultivate the qi by combining movement, breathing and meditation. Tai chi is the most well-known and popular moving form of qigong. The practitioner uses visualization, breathing and body movement to guide the circulation of qi as it moves through and around the body. Other characteristics in common:
Studying the effectiveness of these therapies is difficult because of the challenges in creating controls and placebo conditions. Funding research is also difficult.
Research findings to date have been mixed, and many studies have methodological weaknesses, prompting experts reviewing the evidence to conclude that the research is still sparse, needing larger trials with stronger research methods.12
Clinical Practice Guidelines
2009 evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology say that “Therapies based on a philosophy of bioenergy fields are safe and may provide some benefit for reducing stress and enhancing quality of life. There is limited evidence as to their efficacy for symptom management, including reducing pain and fatigue.” The guidelines give a strong recommendation for these therapies:13
Biofield therapies are thought to be safe, although evidence of effectiveness and mechanisms of effect is limited.15
Specific Biofield Therapies
Descriptions, research, cautions and information about finding practitioners for individual biofield therapies are summarized in separate pages:
- Acupuncture and Acupressure: therapies involving stimulation of one or more designated points on the body with needles (acupuncture), pressure (acupressure), or electricity (electroacupuncture, EA).
- Healing Touch: a heart-centered energy therapy that uses gentle, intentional touch that assists in balancing physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.
- Johrei: a biofield energy healing technique involving a non-touch transfer of life energy.
- Polarity Therapy: a therapy in which energy is conducted through hands-on touch with the goal of removing energy blocks and restoring smooth, free flow of energy.
- Qigong: an ancient Chinese practice consisting of a combination of movement, self-massage, meditation, and breathing.
- Reiki: a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing.
- Tai Chi: the most well-known and popular moving form of qigong. The tai chi practitioner uses visualization, breathing and body movement to guide the circulation of qi as it moves through and around the body.
- Therapeutic Touch®: a holistic, evidence-based therapy that incorporates the intentional and compassionate use of universal energy to promote balance and well-being
Electromagnetically Based Therapies
A description and summary of evidence regarding electromagnetically based therapies is available on our Bioelectromagnetically Based Therapies page.
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on June 19, 2019. BCCT has not conducted an independent review of energy therapies research. This summary draws from several sources, including About Herbs, CAM-Cancer, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and other sources as noted.
- Cancer Network: Energy Therapies
- National Cancer Institute: Topics in Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version (qigong and tai chi)
- Lutgendorf SK, Mullen-Houser E, Deumic E. Energy Medicine in Cancer. Chapter 15 in Abrams DI, Weil AT. Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2014.
- McKinney N. Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition. Victoria, BC, Canada: Liaison Press. 2016.
- Potter PJ. Energy therapies in advanced practice oncology: an evidence-informed practice approach. Journal of the Advanced Practitioner in Oncology, 2013 May-Jun; 4(3), 139–151.
- UK Cancer Research: Healing. A simple, general explanation for patients; helpful explanation about what to expect and how you might feel during the therapy session; includes spiritual healing
- Clinical Trials: Find a Study: enter a specific cancer or other condition in the Condition or Disease box, then enter your therapy of interest in the Other Terms box
- Dr. Cynthia Li: Brave New Medicine
- University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine: Integrative Pain Management Series
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- CAM-Cancer Collaboration: CAM-Cancer
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- Ting Bao, MD: The Role of Integrative Therapy in Cancer Care