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Energy Medicines: Will East Meet West?

Network - Fall 2007

When ex-Marine Mike Powers discovered Chi Kung, he was working in Saudi Arabia teaching electronics and had a lot of free time on his hands.

“I was already into meditation, so I began to practice Chi Kung and fell in love with it,” he says. “Then, one day I was talking to a Chinese man who had immigrated to Saudi and worked for the same company. I asked him if he had ever heard of this practice, and he said, ‘I do it.’”

As it turned out, the man was a Chi Kung (now transliterated as Qigong) master with whom Powers studied for the next 6½ years. When he returned to the United States and started Tai Chi classes, the theory behind these ancient practices fell into place.

Traditional Chinese medicine identifies a system of energy channels that course through the body. Qigong and Tai Chi are practices of self-care that keep that energy in balance by using meditation, breathing exercises and gentle movements to promote deep relaxation and stress reduction. Practitioners of these modalities believe that illness results from disturbances of this life force energy. In fact, “chi” or “qi” in Chinese means “energy.”

"‘Kung’ means a process or system that requires a lot of talent to learn. When you put the two together, you have ‘in-depth study of inner energy,’” Powers says. “A life force within that makes the body work.”

A third practice that Powers uses is Reiki, the ancient Japanese energy healing practice. This hands-on method was popularized during the early 20th century by Mikao Usui, a Japanese monk. According to the theory on which it is based, energy flows through a practitioner’s palms to specific parts of the patient’s body to possibly alleviate some of the symptom burden.

In Western medicine these are called biofield therapies, which form a subcategory of energy therapies, one of the five complementary medicine domains defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. However, they are considered “putative,” meaning they have yet to be measured.

Growing Western interest

As the appeal of these practices grows in the United States so does anecdotal evidence of their results. Large numbers of patients who practice them attest to relief from certain side effects of cancer treatment, such as pain, fatigue, stress and sleep disturbance. However, the lack of strong scientific evidence creates a challenge for health care providers.

Researchers in the United States and Great Britain recently published extensive literature reviews of studies using Tai Chi with cancer patients in the journals Integrative Cancer Therapies and Support Care Cancer, respectively.

... cancer survivors have multiple needs related to physical deconditioning, risk of cardiovascular disease and psychological stress; Tai Chi may provide benefit to them, based on its combination of meditation and aerobic-like exercise.

The American group identified 20 prospective, randomized, controlled clinical trials, but only three studies met their inclusion criteria. They acknowledged that there is a growing awareness that cancer survivors have multiple needs related to physical deconditioning, risk of cardiovascular disease and psychological stress and that Tai Chi may provide benefit to them, based on its combination of meditation and aerobic-like exercise.

Though their results were inconclusive, they proposed a model to study the unique aspects of Tai Chi as compared to regular exercise that might highlight features of this mind-body intervention and help them understand its possible beneficial characteristics (source: Study at the Division of Intramural Research, part of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.)

The British group also carried out a systematic literature review of various controlled clinical trials, using Tai Chi as a supportive therapy for breast cancer patients.

While they identified a total of 27 studies, only four met their inclusion criteria. From these, only two reported significant differences in psychological and physiological symptoms compared to psychosocial support control. While they found no conclusive evidence that Tai Chi is an effective supportive treatment for cancer, they agreed that more studies are needed (source: Study at Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the United Kingdom.)

Another literature search by the British group assessed trials looking at the effectiveness of Qigong as a stand-alone or additional therapy in cancer care. Nine studies met their inclusion criteria and dealt with palliative and supportive cancer care issues. They found that the methodology of all these studies was relatively poor, and recommended more rigorous trials (source: Study at Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the United Kingdom.)

Another very recent study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies by a Canadian group examined the effects of Reiki on cancer-related fatigue, pain, anxiety and overall quality of life. Patients who practiced Reiki, following the trial’s protocol, experienced significant improvements in quality of life, as compared to the control group who merely rested. The study group also indicated significant decreases in tiredness, pain and anxiety.

As stated by the researchers in their paper: “... the passive nature of Reiki makes it an ideal intervention for patients with limited energy who are having difficulty adapting to the stressors associated with cancer and its treatments.” (source: Lead authors from the departments of Psychology and Oncology at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.)

Next steps in research

A paper, published in “Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry” in 2002, suggests that a major barrier in studying these modalities more effectively lies in the conflicting perceptions between researchers and practitioners regarding how patients experience mind-body therapies.

Catherine Kerr, Ph.D., at Harvard Medical School in Boston, writes about a study that set out to examine the effects of Qigong on the immune systems of former cancer patients.

What she found was that “interviews, with biomedical researchers who designed the trial and with the Qigong master responsible for the Qigong arm of the trial, revealed two fundamentally different understandings of how Qigong is experienced and how that experience may be beneficial. The biomedical team sees it as a non-specific therapy, which combines relaxation and exercise. The Qigong master, on the other hand, sees it as using specific movements and visualizations to direct mental attention to specific areas of the body.”

She suggests that the gaps in understanding between researchers and practitioners may hinder scientific efforts to assess therapies like Qigong. Therefore, she proposes that these clinical trials build into the protocol information that looks at cultural aspects of the practitioner’s experience. 

Powers hopes he bridges this gap as he teaches Tai Chi, Qigong and Reiki at
M. D. Anderson’s Place ... of wellness.

“Patients are engaging in these types of therapies as another tool for self-care and awareness,” says Laura Baynham-Fletcher, director the program. “We want to offer a safe environment guided by professionals for this exploration.”

This is just what Place … of wellness is doing. In the last three years, more than 2,000 patients and caregivers have attended Power’s classes at the institution, proving that East and West will continue looking for ways to meet.  

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center