From acupuncture to reiki, here’s what to know about these increasingly popular alternative practices.

By Anna Medaris Miller, Contributor May 15, 2017

New age practitioner directs energy towards a young man's head.

From woo-woo to why not?

“Medicine” used to mean pharmaceuticals. But increasingly, people call food medicine, their fitness class medicine, their posse’s weekend mimosa ritual medicine. “Everybody is realizing that the things we put in our bodies, the thoughts we think, the people we surround ourselves with [matter to health],” says Marci Baron, an energy healer in Woodbury, New York, who calls herself a “homeward-bound guide.” It’s no surprise to her, then, that – especially in our highly stressed, wired and fearful society – more people are embracing energy as medicine. “It’s becoming more mainstream,” she says, “because it works.” But what exactly is energy healing, and is she right? Read on:

An acupuncturist inserts a needle into a client's back.

What does “energy healing” mean?

Who are you asking? While there’s no universal definition, “energy healing” is a bucket term to describe any therapy that aims to correct or prevent an imbalance in someone’s energy field – aka their frequency, vibration or aura – via intuition and sense, touch, talk, objects like crystals or needles (acupuncture) or some combination of modalities. “If what is in that energy field is negative, toxic, detrimental – eventually, from an energy healer’s standpoint, we believe that can move into tissue,” explains Jonathan Hammond, an energy healer and shamanic practitioner at Mind Body Spirit NYC. “Energy healing is about really working on the energy long before anything becomes physical.”

Young man taking deep breaths

Yeah, yeah. But does it work?

Whether you call it an aura, vibe, biofield, information field or electrical field, our bodies emit energy that’s affected by what happens to and around it, experts agree. What’s not supported by strong evidence, though, is the idea that some people can alter these fields to promote health, says Shin Lin, a professor at the University of California–Irvine who chaired a government-commissioned expert panel on energy healing. “It does work,” he says the panel found, “but pretty much it’s because of the placebo effect.” Still, smaller studies show promise, and countless people’s experiences of pain and other symptom relief can’t be ignored – especially since research funding in the area is scarce.

man showing an empty wallet

What are the risks?

From a scientific standpoint, energy healing – which, in the case of a practice like reiki, typically doesn’t even involve being physically touched – is low-risk. “No adverse effects have been reported,” says Shamini Jain, founder and director of the Consciousness and Healing Initiative and an assistant psychiatry professor at the University of California–San Diego. Financially, however, it shouldn’t be pursued thoughtlessly – most people go to multiple, if not ongoing, sessions, which can cost hundreds of dollars each. And medically, it can be risky if you use it in place of or to delay needed care. “This is complementary to Western medicine,” Baron says she tells clients. “Keep seeing your doctor; keep taking your medicine.”

Businesswoman with her head against a window in frustration.

Is it for me?

When people come to Hammond, they typically have similar complaints: “I feel stuck. I feel blocked. I feel like there’s some negative energy I can’t let go of. I keep repeating the same pattern,” they say. If you can relate, energy healing may bring some relief. Certain populations may benefit from energy healing, too; Jain’s research has found it can help reduce pain, behavioral symptoms of dementia and fatigue in breast cancer survivors. Who it won’t work for? Those who go in with a closed mind, Baron says. “I’m never going to convince people that this is for them,” she says. “The teacher appears when the student is ready.”


What should I expect?

Every practice is different, and the types of energy healing vary widely. If you see an acupuncturist, for instance, you’ll be pricked with tiny needles, while a reiki master likely won’t touch you and will instead aim to sense and move the energy around you. If you go to Hammond for shamanic healing, on the other hand, you’ll undergo a multiple-hour experience that could include spiritual counseling, crystal healing, meditation and breath work. With Baron, meanwhile, a session – which can even be conducted over the phone – might share elements of talk therapy. “I say, ‘What is it that you want to work on today?’ and we peel back the layers,” she says.

Male psychologist making notes during psychological therapy

How do I find the right practitioner for me?

Finding the best energy healer for you is no different from finding a dentist, plumber or therapist who meets your needs: It often requires research on training and years of experience, recommendations from people who’ve sought relief to similar problems and consultations with prospective healers. While there’s no blanket, independent credentialing organizations for energy healers, practitioners can be at least partially vetted through sites like the Healing Touch Program, Jain says. Ultimately, what matters most is finding someone whom you trust and connect with, Baron says. “People who seek it, who want it, who resonate with it, are going to be attracted to whichever healer is right for them,” she says.

Anna Medaris Miller, Contributor

Anna Medaris Miller is a Senior Health Editor at U.S. News

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