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Therapeutic Touch

Other common name(s): energy field therapy, biofield therapy, TT

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

Therapeutic Touch (TT) is a technique in which the hands are used to direct human energy for healing purposes. There is usually no actual physical contact.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support many of the claims made for TT, or that energy is balanced or transferred by the use of TT. Some studies suggest that it may reduce anxiety and make people feel better, but others show no effect. Most of the studies were not designed well enough to show whether the effects were from the TT or other factors.

How is it promoted for use?

The practice of Therapeutic Touch is based on the belief that problems in the patient's energy field that cause illness and pain can be identified and rebalanced by a healer. Harmful energy is believed to cause blockages and other problems in the patient's normal energy flow, and proponents of TT claim the treatment removes those blockages. TT is promoted by some to improve conditions such as pain, fever, swelling, infections, wounds, ulcers, thyroid problems, colic, burns, nausea, premenstrual syndrome, diarrhea, and headaches. They also say that TT is useful in treating diseases such as measles, Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, asthma, autism, multiple sclerosis, stroke, comas, and cancer. In practice, TT is generally promoted as a complementary therapy, to be used with standard medical care.

What does it involve?

The clothed patient is normally lying down, but may also be sitting or standing. There are four steps involved in a TT session, which takes between 10and 30 minutes to complete. The first step is called centering. During centering, the therapist makes an effort to clear his or her mind in order to communicate with the patient's energy field and locate areas of energy blockage that are believed to cause pain or illness.

The second part of TT involves an assessment in which the therapist's hands are held about 2 to 6 inches above the patient's body. The therapist then passes both hands, palms facing downward, head to toe along the patient's body. This process is supposed to help locate irregularities or blockages in the patient's energy field that signal a health problem.

In the third step, the therapist conducts several passes over the body with his or her hands. At the end of each pass, the therapist releases harmful energy by flicking his or her hands into the air past the toes of the patient. Finally, the therapist transfers his or her own excess healthy energy to the patient.

What is the history behind it?

Therapeutic Touch is somewhat like the practice of Reiki. It also shares some common ground with the "laying on of hands" as a means of transferring healing energy to someone who needs it. Certain Asian cultures have long believed that life energy flows through invisible pathways within the body. And, masters of qigong (a practice from Traditional Chinese Medicine) believe that they can use their own energy to help others. In the West, the idea of human energy fields can be traced back to the eighteenth century work of Franz Anton Mesmer, a German doctor who believed that illness was caused by imbalances in the body's magnetic forces. He believed he could restore magnetic balance through the use of soothing words and quieting gestures, a technique he called Mesmerism.

In the 1970s, Delores Krieger, PhD, RN, who was then a professor of nursing at New York University (NYU), and Dora Kunz, a natural healer, developed Therapeutic Touch. Dr. Krieger had studied and worked with Kunz in the early 1970s.

More than a hundred colleges and universities in the US and Canada teach TT. It is promoted by many professional nursing organizations. An American Hospital survey conducted in 2005 noted that about 30% of 1400 responding hospitals offered therapeutic touch. Thousands of health care professionals, mostly nurses, have learned TT worldwide. Many nonprofessionals have also learned the technique.

What is the evidence?

A good deal of the information about TT is based on individual reports and small studies, but there have been few well-designed studies. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that only 1 study out of 83 confirmed positive results for TT. The authors stated that some of the clinical studies found positive effects, such as help with wound healing and headaches; however, they reported that most of those studies had questionable study designs. The authors of the JAMA article conducted their own small study, which did not test any effect of TT, but looked at the ability of 21 practitioners to detect the relative closeness of human energy fields under experimental conditions. The authors found that, when the practitioners' views were blocked, they were not able to sense where the investigator was.

In one scientific review of available published studies from 1997, the authors concluded that TT may help reduce anxiety and some types of pain. Ten years later, a closer review of studies looking at therapeutic touch for anxiety disorders found no randomized studies. (Randomization is one of the methods needed for getting reliable results when testing treatments. It helps assure that the control group and the treatment group are enough alike that the results are not explained by differences that were there from the start. Another review of studies showed mixed results on whether TT helped wound healing, with some outcomes favoring the TT groups and others the control groups.

A very small 1998 controlled clinical trial on the effects of dialogue and TT on breast cancer surgery patients found that 10 minutes of TT and 20 minutes of talking lowered anxiety before surgery. This was compared to 10 minutes of quiet time and 20 minutes of talking. No effects were found after surgery.

A more recent controlled study on women with early-stage breast cancer found that those who spent quiet time talking with a nurse noticed feeling just as calm, comfortable, and relaxed as those who had TT.

On the other hand, a small study of nursing home residents with dementia found that twice-a-day TT seemed to reduce symptoms of restlessness, pacing, and wandering when compared to a placebo group. Further study is needed to learn whether Therapeutic Touch can help people with dementia.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to study the effect of TT on burn patients produced mixed results. Patients reported a reduction in pain and anxiety, but there was no difference in the amount of pain medicine they needed.

Many researchers believe the positive results claimed for TT are due to the placebo effect. Studies suggest that the placebo effect may help many symptoms get better for a short time by using the body's own internal systems -- even when fake treatments (such as pills containing only sugar or another inactive substance) or sham procedures (such as sham acupuncture, when acupuncture needles are placed in locations other than those recommended by traditional Chinese medicine) are given. Researchers also believe the patient’s expectation of benefit or the simple presence of a person who is interested in helping can promote relaxation and increase one's sense of well-being. See our information called Placebo Effect to learn more about this.

Overall, the quality of studies that have been done on TT is low. Studies that use blinding (in which patients do not know whether they received a real or sham treatment), randomization, and careful outcome measures would help to find out whether TT can help with cancer-related symptoms. Available scientific evidence does not support any claims that TT can cure cancer or other diseases.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Therapeutic Touch is generally considered safe when given by trained professionals. Some of the reported side effects include nausea, dizziness, restlessness, and irritability. Relying on this treatment alone and delaying or avoiding conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; 1998.

Energy therapies: therapeutic touch detailed scientific review. Complementary/ Integrative Medicine Education Resources, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Web site. Accessed at www.mdanderson.org/departments/cimer/display.cfm?id=6ef12958-d712-4533-8ccef3307e8137dc&method=displayfull on June 2, 2008. Content no longer available.

Hutchison, C P, D'Alessio, B, Forward, J. B, Newshan, G. Body-Mind-Spirit: Healing Touch: an energetic approach. AJN, 99(4):43-48, April 1999.

Kelly AE, Sullivan P, Fawcett J, Samarel N. Therapeutic touch, quiet time, and dialogue: perceptions of women with breast cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2004;31:625-631.

Krapp K, Cengage G. Therapeutic Touch, from Encyclopedia of Nursing & Allied Health. eNotes.com. 2006. Accessed at http://www.enotes.com/nursing-encyclopedia/therapeutic-touch on March 2, 2011.

O'Mathuna DP. TT: what could be the harm? Sci Rev Altern Med. Spring, 1998.

O'Mathuna DP, Ashford RL. Therapeutic touch for healing acute wounds. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(4):CD002766.

Robinson J, Biley FC, Dolk H. Therapeutic touch for anxiety disorders. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD006240.

Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A close look at therapeutic touch. JAMA. 1998;279:1005-1010.

Samarel N, Fawcett J, Davis MM, Ryan FM. Effects of dialogue and therapeutic touch on preoperative and postoperative experiences of breast cancer surgery: an exploratory study. Oncol Nurs Forum. 1998;25:1369-1376.

Spence JE, Olson MA. Quantitative research on therapeutic touch. An integrative review of the literature 1985-1995. Scand J Caring Sci. 1997;11(3):183-90.

Warner J. U.S. Hospitals Offering Alternative Medicine. July 20, 2006. Accessed at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,204744,00.html on March 2, 2011

Woods DL, Craven RF, Whitney J. The effect of therapeutic touch on behavioral symptoms of persons with dementia. Altern Ther Health Med. 2005;11:66-74.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 04/14/2011
Last Revised: 04/14/2011