Therapeutic Touch

by Halima Mohamed

Therapeutic touch is when a medical provider or caregiver treats a patient’s by having their hand hover over the patient body. Although the practice is referred to as touch, it does not include any physical touching between the patient and the patient and the practitioner. It is believed that this practice balances out and correct a patient’s energy fields, and it comes from theory the body mind and emotions can form an energy field. Therapeutic touch suggest that a healthy individual has a well balanced energy field, while an unhealthy person does not have balanced energy fields. There is some studies that suggest that therapeutic touch can help heal wounds, reduce pain and decrease anxiety. 1

The practice became popular in the early 1970’s, when Dolores Krieger a Professor of Nursing at New York University along with Dora Kunz, a natural healer developed this practice. It was first only practiced at NYU where Krieger taught, but it grew in popularity after Krieger did research and wrote about the topic. It is now practiced by nurses in hospitals world wide. 1

This belief is extraordinary because it is uncommon for people like nurses who have an advanced understanding of medicine to be practicing a procedure that has no scientific research proving that it is effective in any way. There is also no research that proves that the energy field they are “balancing” actually exists.

Most practitioners admit that the specific reason why therapeutic touch works is unknown or unclear, but there are two main theories. The first theory suggests that illness and pain are caused by physical disruption such as an infection or an injury, or an emotional disruption such as having a difficult relationship; both of these disruption cause the cells in the body to not function properly which causes disease and practitioners believe that therapeutic touch can help decrease the disruptions and restore communication between cells in the body. The second theory is based on the idea that blood has iron in it, therefore it circulates a electromagnetic field around the body. It is believed that there was a time in which people could see these fields and they were called auras, and now only people who practice therapeutic touch can see them. 1

In general, therapeutic touch is based on the idea that the practitioners can sense the energy of a patient through their hands, and send the patient healthy energy back. It is reported that when most people are receiving therapeutic touch they feel warm, relaxed or relieved of pain. Therapeutic touch is said to be beneficial to those who suffer from chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer because of its ability to lower anxiety. Practitioners also claim that with the help of medication it can help treat a number of complex physical illnesses such as Lupus, Alzheimer’s disease, Bronchitis and even allergies. 1

Although therapeutic touch is practiced in hospitals throughout the world, there is no statistically significant evidence that practitioners are able to sense one’s energy or that these energy imbalances are a cause of physical illness. The little evidence that is favorable towards therapeutic touch is largely based on patients’ feeling during their visit or soon after, but there is no significant physical benefits that can be tracked long term. What makes therapeutic touch unique is the fact that it is focused on the ability of the practitioner to heal their patient and does not take the placebo effect into account. 1

Since therapeutic touch is based on the idea that the practitioner is able to both sense and change a person’s energy, a research study tested 21 experienced practitioners, they were all blinded and asked to identify which hand the researcher was hovering over. On average only about 4.4/10 times were the practitioners right which is far closer to what would happen if a person was randomly choosing. This study suggests that most of the practitioners couldn’t truly feel a person’s energy field by hovering their hand over them. Many of the practitioners give explanations such as “their hands were too dry” or that “the presence of a Television crew made them uncomfortable”. But the results of the test did not make any of them question their belief in the practice. 2 3

What contributes to so many people both believing and practicing therapeutic touch is the legitimacy that Universities around the world have given this practice. When a student comes to a reputable university like NYU (where the practice first began), they expect that everything they are being taught has been vetted. Which leads to cognitive dissonance when research that suggests that therapeutic touch does not work is presented. 2 There is also a sense of overconfidence within the practitioners, even the ones that got 2 out of 10 right thought that the treatment was still very effective and they would continue doing it. Another reason many practitioners enjoy therapeutic touch is because it gives them a sense of control over the treatment of their patients, and it allows them to think they are contributing to the healing of a patient’s way more than they would be if they were not practicing it. The patients also very likely to believe in this practice because many of them are in a vulnerable state, being in a hospital causes a lot of stress and anxiety for most patients, especially ones suffering from a chronic illness or recovering from a surgery, use heuristics to overcome any skepticism since the treatment is being done by a licensed medical professional. 2

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18 thoughts on “Therapeutic Touch

  1. I liked the part where you discussed how therapeutic touch is so uncommon because it is believed by doctors and nurses who are considered some of the most intelligent people. Therefore, its still being used as a form a therapy with no real scientific evidence makes it a harm to others who use it. It is important to note how therapeutic touch as an extraordinary belief is harmful because if the patient thinks its working then they will stop their scientifically proven treatment leading the patient to not receive any treatment.

    • Hey Lauren,
      Did you mean to say that therapeutic touch is so common because it is believed by doctors and nurses who are considered some of the most intelligent people? If the best doctors believe it, how would it make it uncommon?

  2. I liked reading this post and learned some new things about therapeutic touch. I like how you discussed the different views practitioners have for why this works, such as it having to do with blood, iron, and auras. I think it’s appalling that this is viewed as a real medical technique by some people.

  3. I just got finished reading another blog post about the emotional freedom technique which reminded me of therapeutic touch and what you’re talking about in your blog post. I’ve heard people in my life talk about energy fields and auras. Although it’s interesting to think about, it surely is an extraordinary belief as there’s no real proof for it’s effectiveness, as you mentioned in your blog post.

  4. Hey Halima,
    I have never heard of therapeutic touch before. Thanks for all of the insight. I am still a little confused, you said that “Although therapeutic touch is practiced in hospitals throughout the world, there is no statistically significant evidence that practitioners are able to sense one’s energy or that these energy imbalances are a cause of physical illness.” It seems strange that it is practiced in hospitals, which kind? In the US? I feel like 99% of Americans who went to a hospital would be unsatisfied with a doctor waving their hand over a body part.
    Charlie

    • Charlie,
      Dr. Van Zandt mentioned in class that they teach it at OSU’s Nursing school as well as many other reputable institutions around the US. I agree that it seems a little hard to believe, but it is unfortunately true. We discussed a lot in class many of the heuristics that might persuade patients to have this procedure done to them. A lot of my information for the blog came from the University of Maryland’s medical school, if you click the first link you can see a lot of information on the topic from the perspective of a medical center. Hopefully this answers your question.

      • yes i do remember this discussion in class! I was extremely shocked! I think it is insane that people truly think waving motions above their body will heal them. But at the same time, i feel like whether it is a placebo effect of a mind effect, if it is bringing some sort of comfort and healing in any way to a sick person i am in favor of it!

  5. It is interesting how such a belief can become a healing technique and then be backed by a reputable university. I think the fact something without any supportive evidence of it being effective is being taught at universities brings a lot more into question than just how well this healing works.

  6. Therapeutic touch was one of the most mind blowing things we have learned about in class. There is no actual medical benefit and it is still taught at major universities. My main issue with Therapeutic touch is the fact that many of these nurses believe that they are healers and are actually helping the patient (god complex). I don’t see the harm in it as long as the nurses know that it is 100% placebo effect. Thank you for your post!

  7. Halima, I thought the topic of your blog was very interesting! What is interesting to me about therapeutic touch is when you said that people believe that it corrects a patient’s energy field. How would they know that the person delivering the therapeutic touch has a correct energy field to begin with. I feel like this is also something people want to believe in because it takes away psychological discomfort they may be feeling and it is something that you could easily manipulate yourself to believe.

    • I definitely agree with you, according to the research I did for the blog post, it seems that the practitioner has the special abilities to correct their patients energy field.

  8. I find this topic to be very interesting. It amazes me how many people believe in this. It is almost like they believe their healer has magic powers or are God-like. I definitely think that this is a placebo effect for most people who use it.

    • Hannah, I definitely agree with you, I also see elements of confirmation bias on the practitioner’s part, because many of them truly believe they are helping cure their patients by doing this procedure.

  9. I know that therapeutic touch, like many things we have studied, works through the placebo effect, but I find it crazy that therapeutic touch is both well studied and still commonly taught and practiced. Many extraordinary things can’t be disproven, but simple tests can show that therapeutic touch experts have no true magic power or ability to heal; they can’t even guess which hand yours is under 50% of the time. I can’t believe this technique is still taught in colleges across the US.

    • Mike,
      It was definitely hard for me to believe until I saw a few of my friends who are nursing students that believe it works, the arguments I have heard from them supporting the practice is that people who do not believe it works believe in “strong scientism” to an extent.

  10. Reading this reminded me a lot of what you’ll see in some churches where sick people will go to the front of the church and the pastor will pray over them and then claim their illness is cured, sometimes going as far as to claim they’ve cured someone’s paralysis. This practice also has no research showing that it’s actually effective. It’s crazy to me that practices like this continue to be taught and used when there is no evidence indicating that they actually work.

  11. It’s weird to think that something like therapeutic touch is now being taught to nurses and doctors and to students at universities while there is so little evidence for its existence. It’s amazing that people are so ready to believe in the effectiveness of something that can be so easily proved or disproved since no practitioner has ever been able to prove the existence of these energy fields or of their powers. Any effect it has most likely comes from the placebo effect since as you mentioned it is beneficial for those with chronic conditions so it might be because these people are so desperate for any relief from their illness.

    • Joy,

      I definitely agree with you, a lot of the times these patients are in chronic conditions and the practice could be revealing some mental anxiety for them.

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