Many forms of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) involve touch, and touch is of critical importance: many studies have shown that it promotes mental and physical well-being.

A team of researchers conducted a pre-registered (PROSPERO: CRD42022304281) systematic review and multilevel meta-analysis encompassing 137 studies in the meta-analysis and 75 additional studies in the systematic review (n = 12,966 individuals, search via Google Scholar, PubMed and Web of Science until 1 October 2022) to identify critical factors moderating touch intervention efficacy.

Included studies always featured a touch versus no touch control intervention with diverse health outcomes as dependent variables. Risk of bias was assessed via small study, randomization, sequencing, performance and attrition bias.

The results show that touch interventions were especially effective in:

  • regulating cortisol levels (Hedges’ g = 0.78, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.24 to 1.31),
  • increasing weight (0.65, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.94) in newborns,
  • reducing pain (0.69, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.89),
  • reducing feelings of depression (0.59, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.78),
  • reducing state (0.64, 95% CI 0.44 to 0.84) or trait anxiety (0.59, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.77) for adults.

Comparing touch interventions involving objects or robots resulted in similar physical (0.56, 95% CI 0.24 to 0.88 versus 0.51, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.64) but lower mental health benefits (0.34, 95% CI 0.19 to 0.49 versus 0.58, 95% CI 0.43 to 0.73). Adult clinical cohorts profited more strongly in mental health domains compared with healthy individuals (0.63, 95% CI 0.46 to 0.80 versus 0.37, 95% CI 0.20 to 0.55).

The authors found no difference in health benefits in adults when comparing touch applied by a familiar person or a health care professional (0.51, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.73 versus 0.50, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.61), but parental touch was more beneficial in newborns (0.69, 95% CI 0.50 to 0.88 versus 0.39, 95% CI 0.18 to 0.61). Small but significant small study bias and the impossibility to blind experimental conditions need to be considered.

The authors concluded that leveraging factors that influence touch intervention efficacy will help maximize the benefits of future interventions and focus research in this field.

It seems obvious to me that these findings are relevant to several SCAMs, e.g.:

  • acupuncture,
  • Alexander technique,
  • applied kinesiology,
  • aromatherapy,
  • Bowen technique,
  • chiropractic,
  • craniosacral therapy,
  • cupping,
  • Dorn method,
  • Feldenkrais method,
  • gua sha,
  • kinesiology taping,
  • lymph drainage,
  • massage in all its variations,
  • naprapathy,
  • osteopathy,
  • rebirthing,
  • reflexology,
  • Rolfing,
  • shiatsu,
  • slapping therapy,
  • therapeutic touch.

This also means that the effects of these SCAMs will be at least to some extend non-specific, i.e. not related to the treatment per se but to touch. Finally, it means that clinical trials testing these SCAMs need to be designed such that the touch element is adequately accounted for.

10 Responses to A systematic review of the physical and mental health benefits of touch

  • Be extremely careful concerning the “Dorn”-method !!!

    Under the guise of Dorn a HUGE organization of COMMERCIAL Hamer-followers with over 2000 activists formed a nationwide association.

    See here:

    The journalists refuse to write about it. So people, who go to a physio, end up in a Ryke Geerd Hamer’s Germanic New Medicine brainwash.

    This was discovered already in 2010. And until to this very day not a single journalist wrote about this. This is a damned shame for the whole media business.

      • You wrote about the gang with 2000 members, which COMMERCIALLY applies Ryke Geerd Hamer’s Germanic New Medicine under the guise of the Dorn method? I do no see anything there.

        • by ‘it’, I meant the Dorn method

          • But Dorn only is a disguise. The Rueckgrad organization has more than 2000 COMMERCIAL healers.

            Commercial! And, since they have a Bundesverband, they managed to get money from the state. Imagine: an organization, which COMMERCIALLY indoktrinates Ryke Geer Hamer’s Germanic New Medicine, more than 2000 members strong, is commercially active AND is supported by the state. This beats everything we have seen.

            To simply look at the physio and massaging crap of Dorn is not sufficient, It already was not sufficient in 2010, when the organization was uncovered.

            Dorn “therapy” must ALWAYS be seen and known as a Trojan horse for a lethal sect.

  • My dentist is cleaning my teeth. Sweat is sticking my back to the dentist-chair. Tears are in my eyes, then he pauses and touches my cheek, “Nearly there.” he says in his soft Irish lilt, and it is amazing how much more bearable the pain is from that single touch and those words.

  • Old Bob
    I’ve always had issues with plaque all my life. For more than thirty-five years I was on a four-month dental cleaning program (three times per year).
    I started taking some Xylitol gum after eating. My dentist recognized the change in my gums and teeth for the better. Now my cleaning visits go easier after using the gum.

    BTW- I still sweat in the chair.

    • Xylitol has a marked antibacterial effect and I recommend xylitol gum or mints to lots of my patients.

    • John and OB

      You two go to a dentist??????? I didn’t think you all fell for that crap. Routine cleaning visits are a myth perpetrated by dental industrial complex, so dentists can make money off guillable fools. Teeth doesnt need to be cleaned or repaired. For thousands of years humans went on with their business without toothbrushes and/or dentists.

  • Prof. Ernst. You forgot to mention other types of practitioners that use touch in the course of care. These include General Practitioners, nurses, orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, etc. etc. Would you include these practitioner groups in any future studies? If not, why not? I supposed prescribing a placebo like paracetamol for low back pain does not involve touch. I wonder how much more successful it would be, if it did?

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