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There are some things that seem to inspire either love or hate, but nothing in between. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which things are so polarizing or why people feel so strongly one way or the other. You’ve absolutely encountered and almost definitely have opinions on many of them, such as Christmas music before Thanksgiving and cats. But there’s one that’s increasingly in the limelight: Gwenyth Paltrow.
Unlike many other polarizing subjects, the Goop founder impacts people’s lives more than causing some passing annoyance or an allergy flare. Her brand, and the wellness practices it endorses, has been the cause of both rave reviews and lawsuits. They were forced to pay $145,000 for false claims they made about the benefits of sticking a jade egg up your yoni, for example (Garcia, 2018).
Despite the backlash, the actress and her brand were given a Netflix show, and one of the practices featured in an episode, energy field massage, is gaining traction. So, where does science stand on the treatment? We talked to Tim Caulfield, LLM, FRSC, FCAHS, Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy, to find out.
How does it work?
Although it’s nearly impossible to find a standardized definition of what energy field massage entails, the idea is that a practitioner adjusts, refocuses, or releases the energy in the human body through healing touch, based on particular needs they identify by sensing some sort of internal life force or energy flow. In most treatments, the practitioner moves their hands above a person’s body, and there’s little to no actual physical contact. This is just one practice of the broader category of energy therapy or energy healing.
It can help to think of the fundamental ideas of acupuncture, with which people are more familiar. Practitioners of acupuncture, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, move Qi (life force) or direct the flow of energy around your body based on your needs using strategically placed needles. With energy field therapies or energy medicine, the goal is the same, although no needles are used. Reiki is in the same family of practices.
You may have seen a video that went viral of Julianne Hough getting the treatment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, from her practitioner, John Amaral. Though Amaral doesn’t touch her, Hough’s body spasms in ways that have been compared to The Exorcist, and she makes noises that reminded some of orgasming. Other anecdotal reports aren’t as dramatic but include accounts of people’s bodies shaking. No one claims that these healing techniques in any way hurt.
What are the benefits?
Fans of these healing practices claim an energy healer can boost relaxation, help release pent-up emotions, speed the healing process, alleviate chronic pain, and more by manipulating your body’s energy—but science isn’t sold on these alternative therapies.
“There’s no scientific evidence to support [energy field massage] and, in addition to that, this idea that there’s a life force energy running through our bodies that can be manipulated by your hands is scientifically implausible,” Caulfield says. Simply put, there are no proven health benefits of energy field therapies, including energy field massage—with one exception.
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Caulfield points out that the placebo effect is very real and may come into play with this therapy. But, and he emphasizes this point twice, “the placebo effect is overstated.” What also may be happening, he explains, is a natural progression of the condition the patient wants to be treated. If someone thinks their back pain is better after going to an energy therapy or Reiki practitioner, he explains, this may not be because of the treatment but rather how the condition was going to evolve anyway.
While there are some studies on older forms of energy work, such as acupuncture, they don’t exactly build a strong case in favor of them. “The basic rule with acupuncture is: The better the study—so, blinded, with sham acupuncture as a control—the smaller the effect,” Caulfield, who has followed studies on acupuncture closely, explains.
Research, including reviews of past studies, on tinnitus (Park, 2000), premenstrual syndrome (Cho, 2010), stroke recovery (Hopwood, 2008), and asthma (Martin, 2002) have shown no benefit from acupuncture or none greater than that of placebo. There are other studies that show benefits, but Caulfield explains that some experts believe that the positive effects found in these studies are due to the placebo effect.
The famous energy field study
But even if the placebo effect is at play here, Caulfield points out a conundrum. “Do you really want medical treatment based on deception?” he asks. Yes, the placebo effect is deception. “When people are saying there’s a strong placebo effect, they are admitting that this is placebo theater and that this doesn’t really work.” That means you can’t fully consent to your treatment.
And, Caulfield explains, if we say yes to therapies based on deception, “what we’re really doing is inviting an erosion of critical thinking, asking people to believe in magical stuff so we can induce a placebo effect.” There is, however, some research to suggest that placebos with rationale (it’s explained to the patient that they’re getting placebos and why) are just as if not more effective than deceptive placebos (Locher, 2017).
In this case, it becomes an issue of personal value. A private session with Hough’s energy field therapist can set you back $2,400. If they were transparent about where the benefits stem from, the question becomes whether a person believes the placebo effect is worth that cost.
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This is a big “if,” though. Alternative medicine and therapies aren’t regulated by the government in most jurisdictions, so nothing’s stopping practitioners from making claims about the benefits that simply aren’t true. They can also withhold that what you’re paying for is the placebo effect. In some cases, Caulfield points out, they’re promising benefits for people with serious health conditions such as cancer patients. And it’s hard to monitor since there isn’t a lot of science in this area. There is one study on energy field practitioners, however, and it’s not very flattering.
The study, designed by an 11-year-old girl but conducted by researchers, set out to see if “therapeutic touch” practitioners could actually sense human energy fields above the patients’ skin. To put their skills to the test, practitioners were blindfolded and asked to determine which of their hands was closer to a researcher’s hand. The researcher’s hand was randomly placed as determined by a coin flip. Fourteen therapeutic touch practitioners were tested ten times. Seven practitioners were tested 20 times. All of them did no better than random chance, scoring an average success rate of just 44% (Rosa, 1998). Put more simply, their success rate was roughly the same as if they had randomly guessed.
What energy field massage gets right
Caulfield is no stranger to these types of spiritual healing treatments, though, which you wouldn’t suspect of someone who so bluntly says they have no proven benefits. He has tried Reiki, acupuncture, and cupping and—though he doesn’t feel he got any physical benefit from the treatments—says he gets why some people enjoy these healing therapies. “It’s a peaceful time and moment,” he explains, adding that it can be very powerful to have someone pay close attention to us and our needs for an hour, or however long the treatment lasts. It may all be, as he calls it, “placebo theater,” but “it speaks to what people are missing in standard healthcare.”
These reasons, he says, are perfectly legitimate for getting an energy field massage. “I get it,” he says, “I get why people think this works, and I see why some people may be attracted to it, but there really is no evidence to support it at all.” Caulfield suggests that what’s important is that you understand what you are and are not getting from the session. Go to a session to enjoy the experience and the history and culture behind these treatments that are expressions of alternative ways of thinking. But do that knowing that there are no scientifically-proven health benefits.
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Are there any potential risks or considerations?
The biggest consideration here is whether energy field massage works at all. And to make that decision yourself, you’ll have to employ some critical thinking. “Increasingly, practitioners try to explain and legitimize these practices with scientific language,” Caulfield explains, and that can make the range of these types of treatments hard to navigate for people who aren’t casually reading studies. Cupping, for example, started with claims that it could “align your meridians” and slowly evolved to explaining that its effects are due to drawing blood closer to injured areas of the body.
In the case of energy field massage, advocates like Gwenyth Paltrow are pointing to quantum physics. That can sound legitimate and authoritative to many people who aren’t familiar with the field. But Caulfield says, “there’s no way that can justify the kind of benefit they’re claiming,” and encourages people to use their innate skepticism. “If something makes you automatically suspicious, start with that,” he suggested when asked how consumers can do their own due diligence before paying for one of these treatments.
There’s also the risk that someone will choose to pay for energy field massage instead of seeking out other options with a higher probability of treating their condition. Before pursuing these alternative therapies, make sure you talk to your healthcare practitioner, who may be able to walk you through the entire range of treatment options and their efficacy. It may be most helpful to think of these alternative therapies as a complementary treatment that can be paired with what your healthcare provider suggests for your situation and needs.
- Cho, S.-H., & Kim, J. (2010). Efficacy of acupuncture in management of premenstrual syndrome: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 18(2), 104–111. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2009.12.001. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20430293/
- Garcia, S. (2018). Goop agrees to pay $145,000 for ‘Unsubstantiated’ claims about vaginal eggs. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/business/goop-vaginal-egg-settlement.html
- Hopwood, V., Lewith, G., Prescott, P., & Campbell, M. J. (2008). Evaluating the efficacy of acupuncture in defined aspects of stroke recovery. Journal of Neurology, 255(6), 858–866. doi: 10.1007/s00415-008-0790-1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18465110/
- Locher, C., Nascimento, A. F., Kirsch, I., Kossowsky, J., Meyer, A., & Gaab, J. (2017). Is the rationale more important than deception? A randomized controlled trial of open-label placebo analgesia. Pain, 158(12), 2320–2328. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001012. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28708766/
- Martin, J., Donaldson, A., Villarroel, R., Parmar, M., Ernst, E., & Higginson, I. (2002). Efficacy of acupuncture in asthma: systematic review and meta-analysis of published data from 11 randomised controlled trials. European Respiratory Journal, 20(4), 846–852. doi: 10.1183/09031936.02.00078702. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12412674/
- Park, J., White, A. R., & Ernst, E. (2000). Efficacy of Acupuncture as a Treatment for Tinnitus. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 126(4), 489. doi: 10.1001/archotol.126.4.489. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10772302/
- Rosa, L., Rosa, E., Sarner, L., & Barrett, S. (1998). A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. Jama, 279(13), 1005. doi: 10.1001/jama.279.13.1005. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9533499/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.