A new study suggests that "biofield healing" and in some cases, even fake versions of the energy-field therapy may help ease fatigue in breast cancer survivors.
Biofield healing, researchers said, in theory helps balance the energy field around the body and draw out toxic substances. It's been linked based on varying degrees of evidence to pain and anxiety relief in some patients.
In the new study, a type of biofield healing called energy chelation, in which practitioners place their hands in standard positions across the body in silence, was linked to a decrease in fatigue in women who recently recovered from breast cancer.
But so was a mock treatment, in which scientists were trained to do the identical hand placements without concentrating on healing the patient.
"Touch appears to matter, rest appears to matter, interaction with a practitioner appears to matter," said study author Shamini Jain, from the University of California, San Diego and the Samueli Institute, an Alexandria, Virginia, organization that researches healing.
"What it still doesn't tell us is whether there are specific methods of biofield healing that are over and above that," Jain added.
Her team's research, published in Cancer, involved 76 women who had been treated for breast cancer in the past 10 years and suffered from fatigue. The women were randomly assigned to get four weeks (eight hour-long sessions) of biofield healing or fake therapy without being told which one they were getting. A third group was placed on a wait list and didn't get any treatment until after the study was completed.
Patients in both the real and fake treatment groups reported less fatigue than the wait list group after attending the therapy sessions. Women who had real biofield healing also reported a greater decline in "general fatigue" than those in both other groups.
There was no difference between the groups in reports of depression.
Women in the biofield healing group, however, did see changes in their levels of cortisol a hormone related to stress, immune system function and metabolism. While the hormone also seems to be involved in fatigue, it's hard to tell what the cortisol results really mean, researchers said.
Regardless of which treatment group they were in, participants who believed they were getting biofield therapy also reported an increase in their quality of life over the four weeks.
In general, "the findings are promising, but at this point they're very limited," said Susan Lutgendorf, who has studied biofield healing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City but was not involved in the new research.
She told Reuters Health that this is not a treatment meant to substitute for drugs or any "proven medical therapies" but that patients who are interested might consider using it in addition to their standard treatment.
And the quality-of-life findings show that "belief plays a huge role," Jain added, saying that "patients should trust their own gut and their own decision-making" when it comes to alternative medicine.
Researchers who study biofield healing are still trying to understand how it might work. For now, "there don't seem to be any major harms in recommending this," Jain said.
Then again, it's hard to deduce any real benefit based on the new findings, said Dr. Peter Lipson, an internist in southeastern Michigan not linked to the research.
"Fatigue is such a vague symptom of such natural variability," he told Reuters Health.
"It's a completely subjective measurement. Any results you get when you measure fatigue could mean anything."
But Jain said the findings were "hopeful" and warrant further study, in part because many cancer patients are tired frequently and "there's no gold standard treatment for cancer-related fatigue."
She added that some hospitals have volunteers come in and do biofield healing with cancer patients, whereas other patients would have to go out and find a practitioner on their own. In that case, sessions would typically cost about $100 per hour, she said.