MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Therapeutic Touch

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a form of paranormal or energy healing developed by Dora Kunz (1904-1999), a psychic and alternative practitioner, in collaboration with Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing. TT is popular and practised predominantly by US nurses; it is currently being taught in more than 80 colleges and universities in the U.S., and in more than seventy countries. According to one TT-organisation, TT is a holistic, evidence-based therapy that incorporates the intentional and compassionate use of universal energy to promote balance and well-being. It is a consciously directed process of energy exchange during which the practitioner uses the hands as a focus to facilitate the process.

The question is: does TT work beyond a placebo effect?

This review synthesized recent (January 2009–June 2020) investigations on the effectiveness and safety of therapeutic touch  (TT) as a therapy in clinical health applications. A rapid evidence assessment (REA) approach was used to review recent TT research adopting PRISMA 2009 guidelines. CINAHL, PubMed, MEDLINE, Cochrane databases, Web of Science, PsychINFO, and Google Scholar were screened between January 2009-March 2020 for studies exploring TT therapies as an intervention. The main outcome measures were for pain, anxiety, sleep, nausea, and functional improvement.

Twenty-one studies covering a range of clinical issues were identified, including 15 randomized controlled trials, four quasi-experimental studies, one chart review study, and one mixed-methods study including 1,302 patients. Eighteen of the studies reported positive outcomes. Only four exhibited a low risk of bias. All others had serious methodological flaws, bias issues, were statistically underpowered, and scored as low-quality studies. Over 70% of the included studies scored the lowest score possible on the GSRS weight of evidence scale. No high-quality evidence was found for any of the benefits claimed.

The authors drew the following conclusions:

After 45 years of study, scientific evidence of the value of TT as a complementary intervention in the management of any condition still remains immature and inconclusive:

  • Given the mixed result, lack of replication, overall research quality and significant issues of bias identified, there currently exists no good quality evidence that supports the implementation of TT as an evidence‐based clinical intervention in any context.
  • Research over the past decade exhibits the same issues as earlier work, with highly diverse poor quality unreplicated studies mainly published in alternative health media.
  • As the nature of human biofield energy remains undemonstrated, and that no quality scientific work has established any clinically significant effect, more plausible explanations of the reported benefits are from wishful thinking and use of an elaborate theatrical placebo.

TT turns out to be a prime example of a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that enthusiastic amateurs, who wanted to prove TT’s effectiveness, have submitted to multiple trials. Thus the literature is littered with positive but unreliable studies. This phenomenon can create the impression – particularly to TT fans – that the treatment works.

This course of events shows in an exemplary fashion that research is not always something that creates progress. In fact, poor research often has the opposite effect. Eventually, a proper scientific analysis is required to put the record straight (the findings of which enthusiasts are unlikely to accept).

In view of all this, and considering the utter implausibility of TT, it seems an unethical waste of resources to continue researching the subject. Similarly, continuing to use TT in clinical settings is unethical and potentially dangerous.

The aim of this paper was to synthesize the most recent evidence investigating the effectiveness and safety of therapeutic touch as a complementary therapy in clinical health applications.
A rapid evidence assessment (REA) approach was used to review recent TT research adopting PRISMA 2009 guidelines. CINAHL, PubMed, MEDLINE, Cochrane databases, Web of Science, PsychINFO and Google Scholar were screened between January 2009–March 2020 for studies exploring TT therapies as an intervention. The main outcome measures were for pain, anxiety, sleep, nausea and functional improvement.
Twenty‐one studies covering a range of clinical issues were identified, including 15 randomized trials, four quasi‐experimental studies, one chart review study, and one mixed-methods study including 1,302 patients. Eighteen of the studies reported positive outcomes. Only four exhibited a low risk of bias. All others had serious methodological flaws, bias issues, were statistically underpowered, and scored as low‐quality studies. No high‐quality evidence was found for any of the benefits claimed.

 The authors offer the following conclusions:

After 45 years of study, scientific evidence of the value of TT as a complementary intervention in the management of any condition still remains immature and inconclusive:

  • Given the mixed result, lack of replication, overall research quality, and significant issues of bias identified, there currently exists no good-quality evidence that supports the implementation of TT as an evidence‐based clinical intervention in any context.
  • Research over the past decade exhibits the same issues as earlier work, with highly diverse poor quality unreplicated studies mainly published in alternative health media.
  • As the nature of human biofield energy remains undemonstrated, and that no quality scientific work has established any clinically significant effect, more plausible explanations of the reported benefits are from wishful thinking and use of an elaborate theatrical placebo.

These are clear and much-needed words addressed at nurses (the paper was published in a nursing journal). Nurses have been oddly fond of TT. Therefore, it seems important to send evidence-based information in their direction. In my recent book, I arrived at similar conclusions about TT:

  1. The assumptions that form the basis for TT are not biologically plausible.
  2. Several trials and reviews of TT have emerged. However, many of them are by ardent proponents of TT, seriously flawed, and thus less than reliable. e.g.[1],[2]
  3. One rigorous pre-clinical study, co-designed by a 9-year-old girl, found that experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator’s “energy field.” Their failure to substantiate TT’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified. [3]
  4. There are no reasons to assume that TT causes direct harm. One could, however, argue that, like all forms of paranormal healing, it undermines rational thinking.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19299529

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27194823

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=rosa+e%2C+therapeutic+touch%2C+jama

Therapeutic touch (TT) is a form of paranormal or energy healing developed by Dora Kunz (1904-1999), a psychic and alternative practitioner, in collaboration with Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing. According to Kunz, TT has its origins in ancient Yogic texts. TT is popular and practiced predominantly by US nurses; it is currently being taught in more than 80 colleges and universities in the U.S., and in more than seventy countries. According to one TT-organisation, TT is a holistic, evidence-based therapy that incorporates the intentional and compassionate use of universal energy to promote balance and well-being. It is a consciously directed process of energy exchange during which the practitioner uses the hands as a focus to facilitate the process.

The assumptions that form the basis for TT are not biologically plausible. But that does not necessarily mean it is ineffective.

This study was conducted to assess the effect of therapeutic touch on stress, daytime sleepiness, sleep quality, and fatigue among students of nursing and midwifery.

A total of 96 students were randomized into three groups: the therapeutic touch (TT) group, the sham therapeutic touch (STT) group, and the control group. The TT group was subjected to therapeutic touch twice a week for 4 weeks with each session lasting 20 min.

When the TT group was compared to the STT and control groups following the intervention, the decrease in the levels of stress, fatigue, and daytime sleepiness, as well as the increase in the sleep quality were found to be significant.

The authors concluded that TT, which is one form of complementary therapy, was relatively effective in decreasing the levels of stress, fatigue and daytime sleepiness, and in increasing the sleep quality of university students of nursing and midwifery.

Several previous trials and reviews of TT are available. However, many of them were conducted ardent proponents of TT, seriously flawed, and thus less than reliable. One rigorous pre-clinical study, co-designed by a 9-year-old girl, found that experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator’s “energy field.” Their failure to substantiate TT’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.

In my recent book, I concluded that there are no reasons to assume that TT causes any meaningful effects beyond placebo. One could, however, argue that, like all forms of paranormal healing, it undermines rational thinking.

Does the new study change my judgment?

I am afraid not!

The authors of this paper wanted to establish and compare the effectiveness of Healing Touch (HT) and Oncology Massage (OM) therapies on cancer patients’ pain. They conducted pre-test/post-test, observational, retrospective study. A total of 572 outpatient oncology were recruited and asked to report pain before and after receiving a single session of either HT or OM from a certified practitioner.

Both HT and OM significantly reduced pain. Unadjusted rates of clinically significant pain improvement (defined as ≥2-point reduction in pain score) were 0.68 HT and 0.71 OM. Adjusted for pre-therapy pain, OM was associated with increased odds of pain improvement. For patients with severe pre-therapy pain, OM was not more effective in yielding clinically significant pain reduction when adjusting for pre-therapy pain score.

The authors concluded that both HT and OM provided immediate pain relief. Future research should explore the duration of pain relief, patient attitudes about HT compared with OM, and how this may differ among patients with varied pretherapy pain levels.

This paper made me laugh out loud; no, not because of the ‘certified’ practitioners (in the UK, we use this term to indicate that someone is not quite sane), but because of the admission that the authors aimed at establishing the effectiveness of their therapies. Most researchers of alternative medicine have exactly this motivation, but few make the mistake to write it into the abstract of their papers. Little do they know that this admission discloses a fatal amount of bias. Science is supposed to test hypotheses, and researchers who aim at establishing the effectiveness of their pet-therapy oust themselves as pseudo-researchers.

It comes therefore as no surprise that the study turns out to be a pseudo-study. As there was no adequate control group, these outcomes cannot be attributed to the interventions administered. The results could therefore be due to:

  • the time that has passed;
  • regression to the mean;
  • the attention provided by the therapists;
  • the expectation of the patient;
  • social desirability;
  • all of the above.

It follows that – just as with the study discussed in the previous post – the conclusion is wholly misleading. In fact, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that HT and OM both aggravated the pain (the results might have been better without HT and OM). The devils advocate concludes that both HT and OM provided an immediate increase in pain.

Therapeutic Touch is a therapy mostly popular with nurses. We have discussed it before, for instance here, here, here and here. To call it implausible would be an understatement. But what does the clinical evidence tell us? Does it work?

This literature review by Iranian authors was aimed at critically evaluating the data from clinical trials examining the clinical efficacy of therapeutic touch as a supportive care modality in adult patients with cancer.

Four electronic databases were searched from the year 1990 to 2015 to locate potentially relevant peer-reviewed articles using the key words therapeutic touch, touch therapy, neoplasm, cancer, and CAM. Additionally, relevant journals and references of all the located articles were manually searched for other potentially relevant studies.

The number of 334 articles was found on the basis of the key words, of which 17 articles related to the clinical trial were examined in accordance with the objectives of the study. A total of 6 articles were in the final dataset in which several examples of the positive effects of healing touch on pain, nausea, anxiety and fatigue, and life quality and also on biochemical parameters were observed.

The authors concluded that, based on the results of this study, an affirmation can be made regarding the use of TT, as a non-invasive intervention for improving the health status in patients with cancer. Moreover, therapeutic touch was proved to be a useful strategy for adult patients with cancer.

This review is badly designed and poorly reported. Crucially, its conclusions are not credible. Contrary to what the authors stated when formulating their aims, the methods lack any attempt of critically evaluating the primary data.

A systematic review is more than a process of ‘pea counting’. It requires a rigorous assessment of the risk of bias of the included studies. If that crucial step is absent, the article is next to worthless and the review degenerates into a promotional excercise. Sadly, this is the case with the present review.

You may think that this is relatively trivial (“Who cares what a few feeble-minded nurses do?”), but I would disagree: if the medical literature continues to be polluted by such irresponsible trash, many people (nurses, journalists, healthcare decision makers, researchers) who may not be in a position to see the fatal flaws of such pseudo-reviews will arrive at the wrong conclusions and make wrong decisions. This will inevitably contribute to a hindrance of progress and, in certain circumstances, must endanger the well-being or even the life of vulnerable patients.

Reiki is a Japanese technique which, according to a proponent, … is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy…

A treatment feels like a wonderful glowing radiance that flows through and around you. Reiki treats the whole person including body, emotions, mind and spirit creating many beneficial effects that include relaxation and feelings of peace, security and wellbeing. Many have reported miraculous results.

Reiki is a simple, natural and safe method of spiritual healing and self-improvement that everyone can use. It has been effective in helping virtually every known illness and malady and always creates a beneficial effect. It also works in conjunction with all other medical or therapeutic techniques to relieve side effects and promote recovery [my emphasis].

Many websites give much more specific information about the health effects of Reiki:

Some Of The Reiki Healing Health Benefits 

  • Creates deep relaxation and aids the body to release stress and tension,
  • It accelerates the body’s self-healing abilities,
  • Aids better sleep,
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Can help with acute (injuries) and chronic problems (asthma, eczema, headaches, etc.) and aides the breaking of addictions,
  • Helps relieve pain,
  • Removes energy blockages, adjusts the energy flow of the endocrine system bringing the body into balance and harmony,
  • Assists the body in cleaning itself from toxins,
  • Reduces some of the side effects of drugs and helps the body to recover from drug therapy after surgery and chemotherapy,
  • Supports the immune system,
  • Increases vitality and postpones the aging process,
  • Raises the vibrational frequency of the body,
  • Helps spiritual growth and emotional clearing.

With such remarkable claims being made, I had to look into this extraordinary treatment.

In 2008, I had a co-worker in my team who was (still is, I think) a Reiki healer. He also happened to be a decent scientist, and we thus decided to conduct a systematic review summarising the evidence for the effectiveness of Reiki. We searched the literature using 23 databases from their respective inceptions through to November 2007 (search again 23 January 2008) without language restrictions. Methodological quality was assessed using the Jadad score. The searches identified 205 potentially relevant studies. Nine randomised clinical trials (RCTs) met our inclusion criteria. Two RCTs suggested beneficial effects of Reiki compared with sham control on depression, while one RCT did not report intergroup differences. For pain and anxiety, one RCT showed intergroup differences compared with sham control. For stress and hopelessness, a further RCT reported effects of Reiki and distant Reiki compared with distant sham control. For functional recovery after ischaemic stroke there were no intergroup differences compared with sham. There was also no difference for anxiety between groups of pregnant women undergoing amniocentesis. For diabetic neuropathy there were no effects of reiki on pain. A further RCT failed to show the effects of Reiki for anxiety and depression in women undergoing breast biopsy compared with conventional care.

Overall, the trial data for any one condition were scarce and independent replications were not available for any condition. Most trials suffered from methodological flaws such as small sample size, inadequate study design and poor reporting. We therefore concluded that the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of Reiki remains unproven.

But this was in 2008! In the meantime, the evidence might have changed. Here are two recent publications which, I think, are worth having a look at:

The first article is a case-report of a nine-year-old female patient with a history of perinatal stroke, seizures, and type-I diabetes was treated for six weeks with Reiki. At the end of this treatment period, there was a decrease in stress in both the child and the mother, as measured by a modified Perceived Stress Scale and a Perceived Stress Scale, respectively. No change was noted in the child’s overall sense of well-being, as measured by a global questionnaire. However, there was a positive change in sleep patterns on 33.3% of the nights as reported on a sleep log kept by the mother. The child and the Reiki Master (a Reiki practitioner who has completed all three levels of Reiki certification training, trains and certifies individuals in the practice of Reiki, and provides Reiki to individuals) experienced warmth and tingling sensations on the same area of the child during the Reiki 7 minutes of each session. There were no reports of seizures during the study period.

The author concluded that Reiki is a useful adjunct for children with increased stress levels and sleep disturbances secondary to their medical condition. Further research is warranted to evaluate the use of Reiki in children, particularly with a large sample size, and to evaluate the long-term use of Reiki and its effects on adequate sleep.

In my view, this article is relevant because it typifies the type of research that is being done in this area and the conclusions that are being drawn from it. It should be clear to anyone who has the slightest ability of critical thinking that a case report of this nature tells us as good as nothing about the effectiveness of a therapy. Considering that Reiki is just about the least plausible intervention anyone can think of, the child’s condition in all likelihood improved not because of the Reiki healing but because of a myriad of unrelated factors; just think of placebo-effects, regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition, concomitant treatments, etc.

The plausibility of energy/biofield/spiritual healing such as Reiki is also the focus of the second remarkable article that was just published. It reports a systematic review of studies designed to examine whether bio-field therapists undergo physiological changes as they enter the healing state (remember: the Reiki healer in the above study experienced ‘warmth and tingling sensations’ during therapies). If reproducible changes could be identified, the authors argue, they might serve as markers to reveal events that correlate with the healing process.

Databases were searched for controlled or non-controlled studies of bio-field therapies in which physiological measurements were made on practitioners in a healing state. Design and reporting criteria, developed in part to reflect the pilot nature of the included studies, were applied using a yes (1.0), partial (0.5), or no (0) scoring system.

Of 67 identified studies, the inclusion criteria were met by 22, 10 of which involved human patients. Overall, the studies were of moderate to poor quality and many omitted information about the training and experience of the healer. The most frequently measured biomarkers were electroencephalography (EEG) and heart rate variability (HRV). EEG changes were inconsistent and not specific to bio-field therapies. HRV results suggest an aroused physiology for Reconnective Healing, Bruyere healing, and Hawaiian healing, but no changes were detected for Reiki or Therapeutic Touch.

The authors of this paper concluded that despite a decades-long research interest in identifying healing-related biomarkers in bio-field healers, little robust evidence of unique physiological changes has emerged to define the healers׳ state.

Now, let me guess why this is so. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to come up with the suggestion that no robust evidence for Reiki and all the other nonsensical forms of healing can be found for one disarmingly simple reason: NO SUCH EFFECTS EXIST.

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.

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