Does EMDR Work?

Treating trauma with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

By Erik Strand, published July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I've heard about a treatment for trauma that involves eye movement. What is it?

When California psychologist Francine Shapiro invented eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) in the late 1980s, psychiatrists and patients alike were lured by the promise of a single-session cure for post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and phobias. While EMDR's initial splash never swelled to a tsunami, some 50,000 therapists in the U.S. currently sing its praises.

In EMDR, the therapist waves a finger or baton rapidly before the client, who follows it with his eyes. These swift eye movements are said to loosen knots in one's memory and allow negative thoughts and memories to be favorably reprocessed with minimal guidance from the therapist. Some have thought the process is akin to REM sleep, where eye movements accompany the digestion of daytime memories. Others speculated that the left-right alternation of attention brings brain hemispheres into greater balance. But no one really knows.

Some psychiatrists dismissed EMDR as outright quackery. Many practitioners, like Philadelphia psychologist Arlene Goldman, has stood by the treatment. She said it works best with immediate, discreet forms of trauma like rape or a car accident. Controversy aside, Shapiro says more than 2 million people have been helped by the therapy. If you're suffering, EMDR may be worth a shot: You'll probably know after just one session whether it will work for you.