NCCAM Studies of “Energy Medicine” Are a Waste of Money

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
July 28, 2011

Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD is systematically examining what research sponsored by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has accomplished. His review of “energy medicine” studies has been published [1]. The NCCAM Web site describes “energy medicine” this way:

Some CAM practices involve manipulation of various energy fields to affect health. Such fields may be characterized as veritable (measurable) or putative (yet to be measured). Practices based on veritable forms of energy include those involving electromagnetic fields (e.g., magnet therapy and light therapy). Practices based on putative energy fields (also called biofields) generally reflect the concept that human beings are infused with subtle forms of energy; qi gong, Reiki, and healing touch are examples of such practices [2].

NCCAM’s description of nonmeasurable “energy fields” is interesting. Various dictionaries define putative as “commonly regarded as such,” “reputed,” “supposed,” “considered to exist,” and/or “assumed to be such or to exist.” [3] I believe that “putative” implies general acceptance. Most disctionaries do not include the word biofield. The most accurate way to characterize the “energy fields” of qi gong, reiki, and healing touch is that they do not exist and that belief in them is delusional, and therefore that tax dollars should not be spent studying them. But NCCAM prefers language that suggests that they might be real and therefore worthy of government-funded study.

Dr. Ernst and his colleagues located five NCCAM-sponsored, randomized, controlled studies related to energy medicine that were published between 2006 and 2008. The modalities included were reiki, qigong, distant healing, and Johrei healing. (The Jyorei Web site describes Jyorei as “a healing art that uses divine light to dissolve the spiritual impurities that are the source of all physical, emotional, and personal problems” [4]. They concluded:

  • Three studies suggested that energy medicine had an effect,, but their authors either applied statistics inappropriately, confounded the effects of energy healing by adding unrelated interventions to the experimental condition, or failed to design or blind equivalent placebo controls. Their results are therefore untrustworthy.
  • The two studies that were well-designed failed to demonstrate effects from “energy” in healing.
  • The odds of generating a useful result of a clinical trial of energy medicine are small. Moreover,what impact would negative studies have? Scientists will simply say “we could have told you so,” and proponents are unlikely to change their mind. Proponents may then claim that the negative study must have been flawed or that energy medicine cannot be investigated by the tools of science. Or they might rely on the NCCAM-funded RCTs that generated biased but apparently positive results.
  • The NCCAM’s approach encourages a self-perpetuating cycle of misinterpreting research and conducting flawed research, which inevitably generates some studies that erroneously claim positive effects and give the false impression that the efficacy of energy medicine is still scientifically unresolved.
  • Plausibility should be tested before clinical trials are conducted. If not, money and effort will just be wasted.
  • NCCAM should not fund poor-quality studies of implausible practices.

I agree. NCCAM should not only stop funding “putative” energy medicine studies, but should also (a) stop pretending that the practices might be useful and (b) stop funding educational programs (in medical schools and elsewhere) that make the same pretense.

  1. Seip RJ, Ernst E. An independent review of studies of ‘energy medicine’ funded by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. FACT 16:106-109, 2011.
  2. What is complementary and alternative medicine? NCCAM Web site, Nov 2010.
  3. Web site, accessed July 28, 2011.
  4. Jyorei—”purification of the spirit.” Jyorei Web site, accessed July 28, 2011.

This article was posted on July 28, 2011.