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A Closer Look at Therapeutic Touch: Pros and Cons

Therapeutic Touch is a method of energy healing made famous primarily by nurses and lay practitioners in alternative medicine. It was developed in the 1970s by Delores Krieger, RN and Dora Kunz. The technique involves the practitioner using his or her hands to smooth and balance the energy field around the body, or aura, and eliminating blocks in the chakras, which are said to be energy centers located in the body.

The author of this article, Laurence Layne, has taught many people to feel "energy" in their hands by simple exercises. Only a few people cannot feel energy if taught correctly. Tai Chi and Chi Kung (Qi Gong) practitioners, as well as practitioners of Craniosacral Therapy, Visceral Manipulation, Polarity Therapy, Reiki, and some forms of Myofascial Release can feel energy in their hands and in the bodies of their clients. Most, but not all clients who receive such therapies can feel what is called an "energetic shift," or movement of energy, and relaxation and a sense of well-being.

Beyond "a sense of well-being," Is energy healing a useful form of healing or is it merely a psychological and physiological relaxation technique? Some would argue that all energy healing is quackery and the practitioner merely fooling gullible people (more on this later). Others, who use more structural forms of physical therapy, often deride energy healing as a New Age conceit (at best). Adherents of Therapeutic Touch (and other forms of energy healing) often make exalted claims to its effectiveness. As this author has written in other places, if a claim sounds too good to be true, then some honest skepticism is in order. Therapeutic Touch indeed has an actual healing component, but like other methods it has its strong points, and areas where it does not perform as well. Let's look at the mind-body component first.

The Relaxation Response (www.relaxationresponse.org/) has been scientifically measured and documented by Herbert Benson, M. D. at Harvard University. This Response is a state of focus, meditation, and relaxation that helps turn off the "fight or flight" mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system. If Therapeutic Touch only engaged the Relaxation Response, and nothing more, it would be valuable. Healing is often dependent on rest and relaxation so the body can heal. This is an actual physiological response. Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, knew this in the Fourth Century B. C.

How about the mental factor? Medical researchers who have studied the placebo effect have commented that mindset and the psychological impact of visiting a physician or practitioner is a factor in the patient's healing. If Therapeutic Touch engages the belief system of the patient and helps develop a positive attitude towards healing, that alone would recommend it. There is a whole field in alternative medicine called Attitudinal Healing which energy healing directly addresses. This also ties in with Psychoneuroimmunology (psycho = mind/emotions, neuro = nervous system + physiology, immunology = study of immune function), which is a model to describe how mind, emotions, and attitudes affect health.

To answer whether TT, as Therapeutic Touch is called, or energy healing in general, is a valid form of "medicine" and a useful form of healing engages a different model of medicine than the medical model. The medical model does not have a human energy field as part of its understanding of the body. Alternative medicine, almost all of it, postulates a "vital force" that runs the body and is integral to its function. Energy healing is a technique developed from and supported by a vital force paradigm. An energy field surrounding the body is a natural phenomenon according to this model, and human emotions and the living of life, can result in an imbalance in the field, which can then be balanced by the sensitive hands, and intuitive mind of a practitioner.

Like many forms of alternative medicine, Therapeutic Touch needs to be experienced to be appreciated. No form of healing is a "cure all," even regular medicine. Therapeutic Touch works very effectively in certain conditions and has very clear limitations in others.

Here is a list of situations and symptoms that Therapeutic Touch is more likely to help in:

  • Trauma–both physical and psychological trauma
  • Chronic illness, especially cancer, in which there is psychological dimension to the disease
  • Stress-induced illnesses, including digestive disorders
  • Mild to moderate depression
  • Anxiety
  • Wound healing
  • Pain reduction

Here is a list of conditions that Therapeutic Touch may not help as much as other forms of alternative medicine:

  • Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • The common cold and flu
  • Mental Illness
  • Long-term asthma or COPD
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Stroke

Therapeutic Touch teaching and practitioner organizations:

The Therapeutic Touch International Association: http://therapeutic-touch.org/
The Pumpkin Hollow Foundation: http://www.therapeutictouch.org/

Here are some sites that discuss Therapeutic Touch in a medical context:

The University of Maryland: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/therapeutic-touch
The University of Minnesota: http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/therapeutic-touch

Here are some negative sites on Therapeutic Touch:
https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/tag/therapeutic-touch/
http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/tt.html

The Wikipedia article on Therapeutic Touch is written by detractors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therapeutic_touch

The critics of Therapeutic Touch clearly have an agenda to diminish and destroy that form of energy healing. They have a fixed world view that TT practitioners are deluded fools or deliberately trying to trick others (con artists). What they do not understand is that thousands of dedicated, unselfish people who have a holistic or spiritual belief system practice TT with little or no monetary payment. These practitioners are not necessarily (although some are) interested in "doing science" around the subject of TT. They simply desire to help people or grow their own sense of spiritual self. Are there some naive and possibly delusional people in the Therapeutic Touch community? This is a possibility. Whenever you gather large groups of people together around a belief system, you have a mixed motivation, gaps in ethics, egotism–and sometimes pure gold.

My list of conditions that Therapeutic Touch is effective for is different than the one listed on the University of Maryland web site above. This comes from the author's personal observation of energy healing over many years. As an example, mental illness may be helped by TT but is best treated by herbs or medicinal drugs or both. Energy healing works surprisingly well for some structural problems, but probably won't "cure" autoimmune inflammation. Finding the right approach is key when using alternative medicine since all methods are not equally effective with every condition. You might say that each model or philosophy that comes with a technique or healing system is a good fit for some diseases or imbalances, but not others.

There are three areas that TT can make significant contributions to in our health care system. The first is that most people with cancer would benefit from TT or other energy healing. The psyche needs to be addressed in addition to the administration of chemo, radiation, or surgery (or herbs, acupuncture, and diet). Therapeutic Touch helps the patient relax into a self-reflective state and may help bring clarity about mental/emotional issues. The second area is hospice and nursing home care. Energy healing is a valuable addition to regular care for end of life and long-term care situations. The patients in facilities really look forward to (and value) someone who visits them and offers healing energy. A third area that is slowly but steadily advancing is nurses using TT in hospital settings, and integrative medicine settings. Nurses have been leaders in the Therapeutic Touch community.

It is fitting to conclude this article with a discussion of scientific studies. The author is an advocate for simple tests and experiments that help prove or add to our knowledge of "what works" in alternative medicine. One experiment published in the 1990s in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finds that TT has no validity and flunks a common sense test performed by a nine-year-old girl, Emily Rosa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Rosa). In the test, practitioners of TT put their hands through a screen where they could not see the "patient" on the other side and were asked to determine whether they could feel the energy of someone's hand passed over theirs. The practitioners rate of success fell far below that of pure chance, seemingly indicating the non-existence of a "healing energy field." Critics of this test pointed out that both parents of Rosa were Therapeutic Touch haters and actively campaigning to eliminate TT. One of the co-authors of the study was also a notorious "quack buster," whose impartiality was in doubt. Nonetheless, the test was theoretically designed as a science fair experiment by the young lady herself, and in this author's opinion was a fair test if all the facts concerning the study were accurately reported.

On the other hand, there are dozens of studies supporting the validity and effectiveness of TT on the international practitioner's organization web site: http://therapeutic-touch.org/. Their bibliography is fairly comprehensive and lists the Emily Rosa study along with responses to it in JAMA. The sheer numbers of studies on TT with positive outcomes should give pause to critics of energy healing and alternative medicine.

Acceptance or rejection of TT and alt med most often depends on the reference points and belief systems of the viewers. Rejection or acceptance of different models of healing does not necessarily rely on scientific reasoning or even common sense. There are many scientists who personally use alternative medicine and have no problem with its theoretical constructs or rationale. In a personal sense, they are interested in whether it helps them with health issues; most of them are unaware of history of conventional medicine's attempt to block and undermine alternative medicine. As far as "evidence based medicine" goes, there have been many critiques pointing out that much of regular medicine cannot meet the standards of EBM and that studies which support medical practices are subject to the same criticisms that are applied to alt med studies.

Perceived benefits by patients, clients, and receivers of Therapeutic Touch are most likely going to be the standard by which this form of energy healing is judged. An appropriate and interesting study would be designed to understand the sociological factors associated with beliefs, non-beliefs, and degree of personal investment that participants in both regular and alternative medicine have in those systems. This also would help us understand why a small minority of people reject the validity of TT. In the case of a survey taken of receivers of Therapeutic Touch, it is likely an overwhelming majority would find benefit regardless of studies pro or con.

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