MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

The ‘Samueli Institute’ might be known to many readers of this blog; it is a wealthy institution that is almost entirely dedicated to promoting the more implausible fringe of alternative medicine. The official aim is “to create a flourishing society through the scientific exploration of wellness and whole-person healing“. Much of its activity seems to be focused on military medical research. Its co-workers include Harald Walach who recently was awarded a rare distinction for his relentless efforts in introducing esoteric pseudo-science into academia.

Now researchers from the Californian branch of the Samueli Institute have published an articles whic, in my view, is another landmark in nonsense.

Jain and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether Healing Touch with Guided Imagery [HT+GI] reduced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to treatment as usual (TAU) in “returning combat-exposed active duty military with significant PTSD symptoms“. HT is a popular form of para-normal healing where the therapist channels “energy” into the patient’s body; GI is a self-hypnotic from of relaxation-therapy. While the latter approach might be seen as plausible and, at least to some degree, evidence-based, the former cannot.

123 soldiers were randomized to 6 sessions of HT+GI, while the control group had no such therapies. All patients also received standard conventional therapies, and the treatment period was three weeks. The results showed significant reductions in PTSD symptoms as well as depression for HT+GI compared to controls. HT+GI also showed significant improvements in mental quality of life and cynicism.

The authors concluded that HT+GI resulted in a clinically significant reduction in PTSD and related symptoms, and that further investigations of biofield therapies for mitigating PTSD in military populations are warranted.

The Samueli Institute claims to “support science grounded in observation, investigation, and analysis, and [to have] the courage to ask challenging questions within a framework of systematic, high-quality, research methods and the peer-review process“. I do not think that the above-named paper lives up to these standards.

As discussed in some detail in a previous post, this type of study-design is next to useless for determining whether any intervention does any good at all: A+B is always more than B alone! Moreover, if we test HT+GI as a package, how can we conclude about the effectiveness of one of the two interventions? Thus this trial tells us next to nothing about the effectiveness of HT, nor about the effectiveness of HT+GI.

Previously, I have argued that conducting a trial for which the result is already clear before the first patient has been recruited, is not ethical. Samueli Institute, however, claims that it “acts with the highest respect for the public it serves by ensuring transparency, responsible management and ethical practices from discovery to policy and application“. Am I the only one who senses a contradiction here?

Perhaps other research in this area might be more informative? Even the most superficial Medline-search brings to light a flurry of articles on HT and other biofield therapies that are relevant.

Several trials have indeed produces promissing evidence suggesting positive effects of such treatments on anxiety and other symptoms. But the data are far from uniform, and most investigations are wide open to bias. The more rigorous studies seem to suggest that these interventions are not effective beyond placebo. Our review demonstrated that “the evidence is insufficient” to suggest that reiki, another biofield therapy, is an effective treatment for any condition.

Another study showed that tactile touch led to significantly lower levels of anxiety. Conventional massage may even be better than HT, according to some trials. The conclusion from this body of evidence is, I think, fairly obvious: touch can be helpful (most clinicians knew that anyway) but this has nothing to do with energy, biofields, healing energy or any of the other implausible assumptions these treatments are based on.

I therefore disagree with the authors’ conclusion that “further investigation into biofield therapies… is warranted“. If we really want to help patients, let’s find out more about the benefits of touch and let’s not mislead the public about some mystical energies and implausible quackery. And if we truly want to improve heath care, as the Samueli Institute claims, let’s use our limited resources for research which meaningfully contributes to our knowledge.

10 Responses to Healing touch for combat-exposed soldiers?

  • Eugen Roth says:

    ‘let’s not mislead the public about some mystical energies and implausible quackery’………….Yip lets stick to science and give them Prozac, Xanax and Valium.

  • Eugen Roth says:

    “The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us doctors succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor within him. The patients come to us not knowing that truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor that resides within each patient the chance to go to work.”
    Dr Albert Schweitzer, Nobel prize winner

    • Mojo says:

      A bit early to be going nuclear, isn’t it? And combined with an appeal to authority.

      Going Nuclear is an attempt to unleash an argument that lays waste to every position, bringing them all down to the same level of “reasonableness”.

      And I would like a proper reference for your quotation, with some context. All I can find is endless repetitions of it on alt-med sites.

    • Simon Waters says:

      Actually no, my medical condition was generally fatal before modern medicine.My entire life since education largely down to the skill of chemists who died in the last century.

      But I think EE was hinting more research on massage might be useful, and saying studying combinations of treatments needs suitable controls. You want to study gi+ht you want gi only or ht only controls, this is not rocket science.

  • Mojo, “the doctor that resides inside” you is also known by the term Homeostasis; This is the property of a living organism to regulates its internal environment and maintain it in a relatively stable, constant healthy state. Physiological changes like temperature, pH, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, muscle tension, reflexes are good examples. In simple terms, it is a process in which the body’s internal environment is kept stable by adapting to its enviornment. BBC Science even has a test for GCSE students on it http://www.bbc.co.uk/apps/ifl/schools/gcsebitesize/science/quizengine?quiz=add_aqa_homeostasis_ftest;templateStyle=science.

    Matter has limitations and when tissues, for whatever reason are unable to adapt to their environment an intervention may be required to assist the process, before pathology sets in and medical treatment is required. A good example is when you cut yourself most of the time “your inner healer” can deal with it.

    • Mojo says:

      Yes, most of the time the “inner healer” can deal with injuries and illnesses, and there are entire systems of medicine based on the exploitation if this effect.

      I am well aware of homeostasis. I would still like to see the context in which Schweitzer apparently equated doctors with witch doctors.

  • Mersenne says:

    Hurray for the placebo effect! Healing Touch (HT) is based on the idea that “all healing is self-healing.” Of course, we don’t manufacture our own antibiotics or perform surgery on ourselves…

    I took three HT courses but didn’t go further because I felt creeped out and embarrassed by much of what went on.

    Pros: HT works wonders with touch-deprived seniors (of course any touch would do). It’s also a good way for people to experience their innate capacity to relax and “let go” of what’s bothering them (again, many other techniques would do).

    Cons (pun intended): Even an alternative or complimentary therapy can’t be learned in a weekend. Not everyone who takes HT does her homework or practices. Yet they talk about “spreading light” into the world. Many have New Age beliefs such as “we create/choose our diseases” or “everything is for the best.” Do cancer patients or people with PTSD need to deal with this?

    As Luisah Teish says, people get harmed by the combination of arrogance and ignorance.

    PS: If angels really do “spiritual surgery” on the different levels of the human aura, as Barbara Brennan claims, why do they need someone to wave their hands over you before they set to work? Really!

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