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therapeutic touch

 Therapeutic touch (TT) is a type of energy medicine whereby the therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” allegedly directing the flow of chi or prana so the patient can heal. TT is based on the belief that each living thing has a “life energy field” which extends beyond the surface of the body and generates an aura. This energy field can become unbalanced, misaligned, obstructed, or out of tune. Energy healers think they can feel and manipulate this energy field by making movements that resemble massaging the air a few inches above the surface of the patient’s body. Energy healers also think that they can transfer some of their own life energy to the patient. These airy manipulations allegedly restore the energy field to a state of balance or harmony, to a proper alignment, or they unblock a clog in the field or transfer life energy from healer to patient. This restoration of integrity to the field is thought to make it possible for the body to heal itself.

TT has no scientific basis but it does have a history. It was created by a nurse and a theosophist. Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N., and a faculty member at New York University's Division of Nursing began TT in the early 1970s. She was convinced that the palms are chakras and can channel healing energy. She is the author of Therapeutic Touch: How to Use Your Hands to Help and to Heal (1979) and several other books on TT. Dora Kunz, president of the Theosophical Society of America, was her mentor and an intuitive healer. TT is practiced primarily by nurses, though TT is apparently being practiced worldwide by all kinds of “alternative” healers and laypersons.

Practitioners admit that there has never been any scientific detection of a human energy field. This, they say, is because of the inadequacies of our present technology. One with a trained sense, however, is allegedly able to detect the human energy field and assess its integrity. Despite the obvious metaphysical basis for this quackery, defenders of TT claim it is scientific because it is based on quantum physics. A grant proposal to study therapeutic touch on burn victims asserts: “Quantum theory states that all of reality is made up of energy fields and that over 99% of the universe is simply space.” Another defender claims

The underlying principles upon which this technique is based include acceptance of the Einstein paradigm of a complex, energetic field-like universe (i.e., the existence of a Life energy flowing through and around all of us). Further, if life is characterized by an interchange of various qualities of energy, it can be assumed that any form of obstruction -- either within the organism or between the organism and the environment -- is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy. In practicing Therapeutic Touch, one attempts to influence this energy imbalance towards health to restore the integrity of this field. In this way the TT practitioner does not so much "heal" the patient as facilitate the patient's own healing processes, by gently manipulating the body's energy flow and adjusting it as a whole. With the achievement of balance in mind, body and spirit, we have a truly holistic approach (Rebecca Witmer, “Hands that Heal: The Art of Therapeutic Touch,” Healing Arts, 1995).

Let's carefully examine these claims and the inferences drawn from them. Einstein did not have a paradigm which included the notion of “a Life energy flowing through and around all of us.” He may have written of interchanges of quantities of energy. Many physicists have written of such things as transforming mechanical energy into electrical energy, for example, but would the typical physicist understand the expression “life is an interchange of qualities of energy”? From this notion Ms. Witmer infers that any form of obstruction within the organism or between the organism and the environment is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy. This seems like a non sequitur, but she goes on: “if life is characterized by an interchange of various qualities of energy, it can be assumed that any form of obstruction -- either within the organism or between the organism and the environment -- is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy.” This seems like an “alternative” logic using an “alternative” science to support an “alternative” therapy.

It might be true that an obstruction within an organism is contrary to Nature's tendencies, if by that we mean such things as: blockage of an air passage is unhealthy or blocked arteries are unhealthy. Yet, most rational patients with such blockages would probably want someone to physically unblock the passageway. A rational person would not think that a mystic waving her hands over one’s energy field would ever remove any such blockage. On the other hand, for most organisms the environment is mostly obstructions. This may not be healthy, but it is certainly natural. In any case, what does it mean to say that it is unhealthy to go contrary to Nature's tendencies? Are the hurricane, the tornado, the volcano, the flood, the lightning bolt and the earthquake contrary to Nature's tendencies?  How could they be, since they are part of Nature. Is the lion eating the gazelle contrary to Nature's tendencies?

Why so many believers?

One might wonder why a group of otherwise intelligent, highly trained professionals such as nurses would be attracted to something like TT. Ms. Witmer might have the answer. She writes

Those who practice Therapeutic Touch often report reaping benefits for themselves. For example, the ability of TT to reduce burnout in health care professionals has been well-documented.

The TT therapist has powers physicians don't have: secret, mystical powers which only the practitioner can measure. You get a lot of positive feedback. You can’t hurt anyone because you’re not even touching them, much less invading their body with drugs or surgical instruments. You network and those in your network feed off of each other's enthusiasm. There is a great deal of communal reinforcement. Many patients swear they can feel your good work. You feel revitalized, empowered.

Why do so many patients testify to the benefits of therapeutic touch or other bogus therapies such as homeopathy and magnet therapy? Some commit the regressive fallacy. Most testimonials are not followed up. They are based on immediate or early impressions. Both therapist and patient are deceived into thinking a temporary lift, which may be due to expectation, is significant and will last. Or, credit is given to TT when the real causative agent was a concurrent treatment (drugs or surgery, for example). Also, the feelings associated with illness or injury can be quite complex, involving not just pain but various emotions and desires. The patient may be anxious and fearful, or hopeful and optimistic. The intervention of any caring therapist--and those who practice TT are universally admired for their caring attitude--can profoundly affect these feelings. The patient may feel better, but the feeling may have nothing to do with being cured or healed. There is scientific evidence that supportive therapy of breast cancer patients improves mood and pain control, but not longevity (Goodwin 2001; Spiegel 2007). It may be that therapies such as TT have a similar effect on mood, though they do nothing to curtail the illness or disease itself. Elevated mood may be misinterpreted as improved health. The same improvement might have been induced by watching a Buster Keaton movie.

New Age spiritualism has co-opted some of the language of physics, including the language of quantum mechanics, in its quest to make ancient metaphysics sound like respectable science. The New Age preaches enhancing your vital energy, tapping into the subtle energy of the universe, or manipulating your biofield so that you can be happy, fulfilled, successful, and lovable, and so life can be meaningful, significant, and endless. The New Age promises you the power to heal the sick and create reality according to your will, as if you were a god.

Some healers claim they can feel the energy of these elusive and ineluctable biofields, vibrations, auras, or rays. Therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners make this claim. Twenty-one practitioners, who knew from much experience that they could feel the energy around the bodies of patients, were tested. They had never been tested, however, in a situation where they could not see the source of the alleged "energy field." Nine-year-old Emily Rosa tested these energy healers to see if they could feel her life energy when they could not see its source. The test was very simple and seems to clearly indicate that the subjects could not detect the life energy of the little girl’s hands when placed near theirs. They had a 50% chance of being right in each test, yet they correctly located Emily's hand only 44% of the time in 280 trials. If they can’t detect the energy, how can they manipulate or transfer it? What are they detecting? Most likely they are detecting what has been suggested to them by those who taught them this practice. Their feelings of energy detection appear to be manufactured in their own minds. Krieger has been offered $1,000,000 by James Randi to demonstrate that she, or anyone else for that matter, can detect the human energy field. So far, Krieger has not been tested.

update: 17 Nov 2010. The Rosa paper with criticisms and rebuttals is now available online from Skeptic magazine.

See also acupuncture, aura therapy, Ayurvedic medicine, alternative health practice, confirmation bias, pathological science, pseudoscience, reiki, self-deception, wishful thinking, and "Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places."

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Clark, Philip E. and Mary Jo Clark, "Therapeutic touch: Is There a Scientific Basis for the Practice?" Nursing Research, 33 , Jan/Feb 1984.

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't' So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).

Goodwin, Pamela J. et al. "The Effect of Group Psychosocial Support on Survival in Metastatic Breast Cancer," New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 345, Number 24 December 13, 2001.

Hover-Kramer, Dorothea. Healing touch: a resource for health care professionals with contributing authors, Janet Mentgen, Sharon Scandrett-Hibdon (New York : Delmar Publishers, 1996).

Montagu, Ashley. Touching : The Human Significance of the Skin (HarperCollins, 1986). (Touching really is therapeutic.)

Selby, Carla and Bela Scheiber. "Science or Pseudoscience? Pentagon Grant Funds Alternative Health Study, " in the Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 1996.

Selby, Carla and Bela Scheiber. Therapeutic Touch (Prometheus, 2000).

Stenger, Victor J. "Quantum Quackery," Skeptical Inquirer. January/February 1997.

Williams, Susan M. "Holistic Nursing," in Examining Holistic Medicine ed. by Douglas Stalker (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989). 


"Nursing irrationality" by Sarah Glazer in Spiked Health

Hands Off, Doctor by Howard Fienberg

"Therapeutic Touch" by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Rocky Mountan Skeptics on TT

THERAPEUTIC TOUCH: Healing Therapy or Hoax?

Support groups don't extend survival of metastatic breast cancer patients

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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