Why Therapeutic Touch Should Be Considered Quackery

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a method in which the hands are said to "direct human energies to help or heal someone who is ill." Proponents claim that the patient's "energy field" can be detected and intentionally manipulated by the therapist. They theorize that healing results from a transfer of "excess energy" from healer to patient. Their reports claim that TT is effective against scores of diseases and conditions.

Therapeutic Touch was conceived in the early 1970s by Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N., a faculty member at New York University's Division of Nursing. The "human energy field" TT theorists postulate resembles the "magnetic fluid" or "magnetic force" hypothesized during the 18th century by Anton Mesmer and his followers [1]. Mesmerism held that illnesses are caused by obstacles to the free flow of this fluid and that skilled healers ("sensitives") could remove these obstacles by making passes with their hands. Some aspects of mesmerism were revived in the nineteenth century by Theosophy, an occult religion that incorporated Eastern metaphysical concepts and underlies many current "New Age" ideas. Dora Kunz, who is considered TT's co-developer, was president of the Theosophical Society of America from 1975 to 1987. She collaborated with Krieger on the early TT studies and claims to be a fifth-generation "sensitive" and a "gifted healer."

In the late 1990s, proponents stated that more than 100,000 people worldwide had been trained in TT technique, including at least 43,000 health care professionals, and that about half of those trained actually practiced it. TT generally involves four steps:

  1. "Centering," a meditative process said to align the healer with the patent's energy level
  2. "Assessment," said to be performed by using one's hands to detect forces emanating from the patient.
  3. "Unruffling the field," (also called "clearing"), said to involve sweeping "stagnant energy" downward to prepare for energy transfer,
  4. "Transfer of "energy" from practitioner to patient.

The most common form of TT is "non-contact therapeutic touch," which is done with the "healer's" hands held a few inches away from the patient's body. TT is sometimes used together with massage.

There is no scientific evidence or logical reason to believe that the "energy transfer" postulated by proponents actually occurs. It is safe to assume that any reactions to the procedure are psychological responses to the "laying on of hands."

In 1996, Linda Rosa, R.N., published a critique of all of the studies related to TT she could locate in nursing journals and elsewhere. She concluded: "The more rigorous the research design, the more detailed the statistical analysis, the less evidence that there is any observed—or observable—phenomenon." [2]

TT advocates state that, "Baseline assessment of the energy field is necessary in order to intervene effectively during the TT intervention." [3] At age 9, Rosa's daughter Emily figured out a way to test whether practitioners could detect her alleged "energy field." During the next two years, she tested whether 21 of them could detect one of her hands near theirs if they couldn't see it. Each subject was tested 10 or 20 times.
During the tests, the practitioners rested their forearms and hands, palms up, on a flat surface, approximately 10 to 12 inches apart. Emily then hovered her hand, palm down, a few inches above one of the subject's palms. A cardboard screen approximately 3 feet high and 1/8th of an inch thick was used to prevent the subjects from seeing which of their hands was selected. The practitioners correctly located Emily's hand only 122 (44%) out of 280 trials, which is no better than would be expected by guessing [4]. A score of 50% would be expected through chance alone. The study was reported in 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) whose editor, George D. Lundberg, M.D., commented that: (a) TT practitioners hencforth had an ethical duty to disclose its results to potential patients, (b) third-party payers should question whether they should pay for TT procedures, and (c) patients should refuse to pay for TT "until or unless additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect." [5].  

Drawing by Pat Linse, Skeptics Society

In 1996, the James Randi Educational Foundation offered $742,000 to anyone who could demonstrate an ability to detect a "human energy field" under conditions similar to those of our study. Although more than 80,000 American practitioners claim to have such ability, only one person attempted to demonstrate it. She failed, and the offer, now at $1 million, has had no further takers despite extensive recruiting efforts, including a direct appeal to Dr. Krieger. That's not surprising, of course, because TT's proponents have nothing to gain by submitting to honest testing of their most basic assumption.

If you are on the staff of a hospital in which TT is practiced, please lodge a protest.

References

  1. Ball TS, Alexander DD. Catching up with eighteenth century science in the evaluation of therapeutic touch. Skeptical Inquirer 22(4):31-34, 1998.
  2. Rosa L. Survey of Therapeutic Touch "Research." Loveland, Colorado: Front Range Skeptics, 1996.
  3. Therapeutic touch policy and procedure for health care professionals. Nurse Healers-Professional Associates International Web site, accessed Feb 3, 2008.
  4. Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. JAMA 279:1005-1010, 1998. To obtain a reprint of this article, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the National Therapeutic Touch Study Group, 711 W. 9th St., Loveland, CO 80537.
  5. Lundberg GD. Editor's note. JAMA 279:1040, 1998.

For Additional Information

This article was revised on February 3, 2008.