Alternative medicine is extraordinarily diverse. Some of its healing practices, like the modern use of herbs, are virtually indistinguishable 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 these prescientific theories, vital force is what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate; it explains the difference between you and a cadaver.
According to this view, when this energy is properly balanced and distributed, the life it sustains is healthy and functions harmoniously with nature. Illness prevails when it becomes deficient, excessive, or blocked in its flow. Therapies such as acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and meditation strive to manipulate this energy to maintain or restore its balance. Most scientists and physicians, however, are uncomfortable with the notion of vital energy because 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 sufficient to fully explain life, health, and disease.
How can these vastly different healing philosophies come together to best serve patients? This is no small question.
Energy medicine has been slow to enter the mainstream precisely because of its nonconformity with the scientific points of view of the last two hundred years. As a consequence, fewer patients have access to these therapies, even if some of them may actually be effective. Intrigued by energy medicine's results, a growing number of researchers and clinicians are beginning to offer scientific explanations for its effects.
Let's consider three examples:
is based in part on the concept of "qi" (pronounced chi), the supposed vital force that permeates 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 (acupuncture points), 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 very difficult to tell whether a treatment works without performing double-blind studies.
There are numerous treatments that were believed to be effective in the past, but turned out not to actually work: the classic example in conventional medicine's own history is the practice of bleeding.
Nonetheless, some modern scientific studies do hint at real benefits with acupuncture. To explain acupuncture's apparent effects, some physicians 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. For example, they have found hints that acupuncture does the following:
- Releases pain-relieving substances from the brain called endorphins
- Stimulates specialized nerves in the skin that might dampen pain elsewhere
- Activates other nerves that control autonomic bodily functions like blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and immunity.
The ancient observation of the
power of touch
has inspired many healing traditions. Qi Gong and
are two 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 emanates 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. How can this be explained except 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 supposed field that therapeutic touch practitioners claim to observe; one study showed that without the benefit of visual contact, practitioners of therapeutic touch cannot in fact sense the presence of another person's hand inches away from their own.
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. Mediation 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. Many advocates of meditative healing assign an "energetic" quality to the mind, which may take the form of a "collective consciousness" extending beyond the individual and uniting all conscious beings. Practitioners of spiritually based systems view the mind as a manifestation of God, believing that all healing is divinely inspired.
Most physicians readily acknowledge the mind's influence on health. Once again, 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.
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 in the absence of a concrete scientific explanation. This debate will certainly continue for some time. However for those who wish to incorporate energy medicine into their healthcare, there is a long tradition of practice to draw from, and a long future of research from which to learn.