The word energy may have a simple definition but when coupled with medicine, it gets more complicated. Energy to a physical scientist or engineer means the capacity to do work. It is measured in Joules or BTUs or any number of other terms. It comes in the form of potential or kinetic energy. There is chemical, electrical, vibrational, energy and more; nevertheless, all these ways of defining and measuring energy are real.
Then there is the use of the term energy medicine. It is a term frequently used (abused) by practitioners of alternative medicine. It encompasses a range of biologically implausible and clinically unproven practices such as therapeutic touch, acupuncture, and much of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
At the heart of energy medicine and especially TCM is the mystical Qi. It is said to be a “vital force” which is said to flow through various meridians in the body. Acupuncture is supposed to work by interfering with or enhancing the flow of Qi, when the needles are placed in the appropriate meridians. Because Qi is so ill defined and unproven, any therapy that relies on its existence is questionable at best. Just because there are claims of ancient use of a given therapy doesn’t mean it is real – just ask a rhinoceros without a horn, a bear without a gallbladder, or a tiger without a penis.
In the world of real medicine, energy is used in a number of imaging techniques. There are a number of imaging techniques. Some procedures such as MRI and ultrasound are essentially harmless, while PET and CT scans, involve some risk due to exposure to ionizing radiation.
Ultrasound, like the sound we can hear, is a pressure wave. Echo location in bats and sonar in submarines utilize the same concept. A transducer creates a sound wave which reflects off of structures in the body. The echo is collected by a computer which turns it into an image. At the frequency and intensity utilized in medical imaging called sonography, it is harmless.
MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and is another relatively harmless imaging technique. It has been in use by chemists for determining the structure of molecules for over 50 years. It involves electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves, combined with a strong magnetic field. The only contraindication for MRI is the presence of metallic objects in the body. Metal staples, pins, and devices like pacemakers could be moved due to the magnetic field or heated via induction.
A medical imaging tool that presents a risk is CT scanning. CT stands for Computerized Tomography. This is essentially a way to get three dimensional images via the collection of multiple X-rays from different angles. A computer then collects these individual 2-D images and creates a 3-D image. This diagnostic technique has a slight but real risk, due to the exposure of the patient to X-rays, a known risk for cancer. The more scans, the greater exposure to ionizing radiation, and the greater risk of cancer.
The aforementioned imaging techniques all use some sort of sound wave or electromagnetic radiation generated outside the body. PET scans have the radiation originate inside the body. In Positron Emission Tomography, a substance called a radiopharmaceutical is injected into the body. The radioactive emission from the injected chemical is detected by sensors outside the body.
With any imaging technique or medical procedure for that matter, risks must be weighed against benefits. The only other limitation to the application of an imaging technique is economic.