Healing Touch

Distant healing is one of the most bizarre yet popular forms of alternative medicine. Healers claim they can transmit ‘healing energy’ towards patients to enable them to heal themselves. There have been many trials testing the effectiveness of the method, and the general consensus amongst critical thinkers is that all variations of ‘energy healing’ rely entirely on a placebo response. A recent and widely publicised paper seems to challenge this view.

This article has, according to its authors, two aims. Firstly it reviews healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (e.g., studies of plants or cell cultures) that were less susceptible to placebo-like effects. Secondly, it presents a systematic review of clinical trials on human patients receiving distant healing.

All the included studies examined the effects upon a biological system of the explicit intention to improve the wellbeing of that target; 49 non-whole human studies and 57 whole human studies were included.

The combined weighted effect size for non-whole human studies yielded a highly significant (r = 0.258) result in favour of distant healing. However, outcomes were heterogeneous and correlated with blind ratings of study quality; 22 studies that met minimum quality thresholds gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of 0.115.

Whole human studies yielded a small but significant effect size of r = .203. Outcomes were again heterogeneous, and correlated with methodological quality ratings; 27 studies that met threshold quality levels gave an r = .224.

From these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.

In a press release, the authors warned: the data need to be treated with some caution in view of the poor quality of many studies and the negative publishing bias; however, our results do show a significant effect of healing intention on both human and non-human living systems (where expectation and placebo effects cannot be the cause), indicating that healing intention can be of value.

My thoughts on this article are not very complimentary, I am afraid. The problems are, it seems to me, too numerous to discuss in detail:

  • The article is written such that it is exceedingly difficult to make sense of it.
  • It was published in a journal which is not exactly known for its cutting edge science; this may seem a petty point but I think it is nevertheless important: if distant healing works, we are confronted with a revolution in the understanding of nature – and surely such a finding should not be buried in a journal that hardly anyone reads.
  • The authors seem embarrassingly inexperienced in conducting and publishing systematic reviews.
  • There is very little (self-) critical input in the write-up.
  • A critical attitude is necessary, as the primary studies tend to be by evangelic believers in and amateur enthusiasts of healing.
  • The article has no data table where the reader might learn the details about the primary studies included in the review.
  • It also has no table to inform us in sufficient detail about the quality assessment of the included trials.
  • It seems to me that some published studies of distant healing are missing.
  • The authors ignored all studies that were not published in English.
  • The method section lacks detail, and it would therefore be impossible to conduct an independent replication.
  • Even if one ignored all the above problems, the effect sizes are small and would not be clinically important.
  • The research was sponsored by the ‘Confederation of Healing Organisations’ and some of the comments look as though the sponsor had a strong influence on the phraseology of the article.

Given these reservations, my conclusion from an analysis of the primary studies of distant healing would be dramatically different from the one published by the authors: DESPITE A SIZABLE AMOUNT OF PRIMARY STUDIES ON THE SUBJECT, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DISTANT HEALING REMAINS UNPROVEN. AS THIS THERAPY IS BAR OF ANY BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, FURTHER RESEARCH IN THIS AREA SEEMS NOT WARRANTED.

There are many terms for this type of treatment: energy healing, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, spiritual healing and para-normal healing are just some of the better-known ones. These interventions are based of the belief that some sort of ‘energy’ can be channelled by the healer into the body of the patient to assist its capacity for self-healing. Needless to say that their biological plausibility is suspiciously close to zero.

This new study was aimed at testing the effectiveness of energy healing on the well-being of patients and at assessing the influence on the results of participating in a randomized controlled trial. A total of 247 colorectal cancer patients were included in the trial. One half of them were randomized to either:

  • healing (RH) or
  • control (RC)

The other half of the patients was not randomized and had either:

  • self-selected healing (SH) or
  • self-selected control condition (SC)

All patients completed questionnaires assessing well-being Quality of Life (QoL), depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality), attitude toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and faith/spirituality at baseline, 1 week, and 2 months post-intervention. Patients were also asked to indicate, at baseline, whether they considered QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality as important outcomes.

Compared with controls, no overall effect of healing were noted on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, or sleep quality in the intervention groups (RH, SH). Effects of healing on mood were only found for patients who initially had a positive attitude toward CAM and considered the outcome in question as important.

The authors of this study arrived at the following conclusions: Whereas it is generally assumed that CAMs such as healing have beneficial effects on well-being, our results indicated no overall effectiveness of energy healing on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality in colorectal cancer patients. Effectiveness of healing on well-being was, however, related to factors such as self-selection and a positive attitude toward the treatment.

Survey after survey shows that ‘energy healing’ is popular amongst cancer patients. But medicine is no popularity contest, and the existing clinical trials have mostly failed to show that these treatments work beyond a sometimes remarkably strong placebo-effect. Consequently, several systematic reviews have arrived at conclusions that were far from positive:

There is no robust evidence that Therapeutic Touch promotes healing of acute wounds

We found inconclusive evidence that interventions with spiritual or religious components for adults in the terminal phase of a disease may or may not enhance well-being

The serious methodological and reporting limitations of limited existing Reiki studies preclude a definitive conclusion on its effectiveness

…the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer

 …the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven

Since the publication of our previous systematic review in 2000, several rigorous new studies have emerged. Collectively they shift the weight of the evidence against the notion that distant healing is more than a placebo

This new and fairly rigorous trial clearly points in the same direction. Thus we a faced with the fact that these treatments are:

  1. utterly implausible
  2. not supported by good clinical evidence

What follows seems as simple as it is indisputable: energy healing is nonsense and does not merit further research.

Therapeutic Touch is an alternative therapy which is based on the notion of ‘energy healing’; it is thus akin to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing. A recent survey from Canada suggested that such treatments are incredibly popular: over 50% of the families that were asked admitted using them for kids suffering from cancer.

The therapists using Therapeutic Touch, mostly nurses, believe to be able to channel ‘healing energy’ into the body of the patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the patient’s self-healing potential. Proponents of Therapeutic Touch claim that it is effective for a very wide range of conditions. Here is what one typical website by advocates states: As a healing modality Therapeutic Touch has been shown to be very effective in decreasing anxiety, decreasing stress, evoking the relaxation response, decreasing pain, and promoting wound healing. Therapeutic Touch as a method of healing is used by both professionals in the health field and laymen in the community.

There is a surprising amount of research on Therapeutic Touch. Unfortunately most of it is fatally flawed. It is therefore refreshing to see a new clinical study with a rigorous and straight forward design.

The objective of this trial was to determine whether Therapeutic Touch is efficacious in decreasing pain in preterm neonates. Fifty-five infants < 30 weeks’ gestational age participated in a randomized control trial in two neonatal intensive care units. Immediately before and after a painful heel lance procedure, the therapist performed non-tactile Therapeutic Touch with the infant behind curtains. In the sham condition, the therapist stood by the incubator without performing Therapeutic Touch. The Premature Infant Pain Profile was used for measuring pain and time for heart rate to return to baseline during recovery. Heart rate variability and stress response were secondary outcomes.

The results showed no group differences in any of the outcome measures. Mean Premature Infant Pain Profile scores across 2 minutes of heel lance procedure in 30-second blocks ranged from 7.92 to 8.98 in the Therapeutic Touch group and 7.64 to 8.46 in the sham group. The authors concluded that Therapeutic Touch given immediately before and after heel lance has no comforting effect in preterm neonates. Other effective strategies involving actual touch should be considered.

These findings are hardly surprising considering the implausibility of the ‘principles’ that underlie Therapeutic Touch. Nobody has so far been able to measure the mystical ‘energy’ that is the basis of this treatment. The only Cochrane review failed to show that Therapeutic touch works beyond placebo: There is no robust evidence that TT promotes healing of acute wounds.

Why then is Therapeutic Touch so popular? Part of the answer to this question might lie here: 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.

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.

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