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Nursing’s New Alternative: Therapeutic Touch

Donal P. O’Mathuna

{This article was published in the Ohio Council Against Health Fraud Newsletter Vol. 7 (Winter 1996) pp. 2-4. Click on my name above to return to my home page from where you can get to other papers I've written, my interests, or get in contact with me.}

Therapeutic Touch (TT) is an alternative healing method growing in popularity among nurses. Over 80 colleges and universities in the United States teach TT, primarily in nursing schools. Proponents estimate that over 100,000 nurses have had TT training in 70 countries. The National League for Nursing, the accrediting body for U.S. nursing colleges, promotes TT through teaching videos. The Department of Defense recently gave a grant of $355,000 to researchers at the University of Alabama to study TT.

Most would agree that someone’s touch is beneficial and comforting, especially when we are ill or anxious. However, TT does not involve physical touch! It involves "the conscious use of the hands to direct or modulate, for therapeutic purposes, selected nonphysical human energies that activate the physical body" (Krieger, 3-4). Thus, TT is yet another alternative healing practice based on vitalistic notions of universal life energy.

TT was originally developed in the 1960s by Dora Kunz and Dolores Krieger, RN, Ph.D. Kunz, a clairvoyant, was then President of the Theosophical Society in America. Krieger was on the faculty at New York University’s School of Nursing and did much to popularized the practice among nurses through teaching and writing. TT is based on the assumption that humans are open energy fields. When these fields are bilaterally symmetrical, we are healthy, but when they are imbalanced, we become ill. TT allows a healer to detect and correct imbalances. To do this, the healer must be "centered" (a form of meditation), and must have strong intentions to help and heal the patient.

Patients sit or lie comfortably. When properly centered, the healer passes his or her hands over the patients’ body without making contact. Imbalances in the energy field are detected as a variety of "cues" such as "vague hunches, passing impressions, flights of fancy, or, in precious moments, true insights or intuitions" (Krieger, 29). These imbalances are corrected by "‘effortless effort’ that is guided by conscious, mindful action" (Krieger, 12).

TT is most commonly viewed as effective in reducing anxiety, relieving pain, and accelerating wound healing. However, many anecdotal reports claim it can help in a wide variety of conditions such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), depression, complications in premature babies, secondary infections due to HIV, etc. (Krieger, 133-67).

But how well does TT perform in controlled studies? Proponents cite over 20 years of research to back up their claims. However, reviews consistently find methodological flaws in this research (Walike, Clarke). Most recently, the University of Colorado convened a panel of science and nursing faculty to examine the scientific evidence for TT. They concluded that "the scientific rationale for TT is not established and indeed can be questioned in several areas. . . [T]here is not a sufficient body of data, both in quality and quantity, to establish TT as a unique and efficacious healing modality" (Claman, 3, 6).

Proponents of TT viewed this report "as male-dominated medical imperialism against female-dominated nursing" (Rosa, 48). Defending TT’s poor research, the Dean of the Nursing School declared, "We would like to imagine our whole lives are rational and science-based, but only 15% of medical interventions are supported by solid scientific evidence." If this was true, it would argue for better research, not the acceptance of procedures which have little supporting evidence. In fact, medical practices are much more evidence-based than is often claimed (NCAHF Newsletter, Nov/Dec 1995).

In spite of these peer reviews, popular nursing journals continue to promote TT as if it had a solid research base. For example, last year a nursing journal gave continuing education credit for an article promoting TT (Mackey). This article shows how research findings can be misused in popular articles. Without giving any references, Mackey claimed that, "Several studies have substantiated the analgesic properties of therapeutic touch." She gave (without citation) the results of one study (Meehan, 1993), concluding: "Though the researchers acknowledge that a 13% reduction in pain doesn’t support the use of therapeutic touch alone as a postoperative analgesic, they suggest that it validates its use as an adjunct to analgesics."

Meehan’s own conclusion is very different. She states that prior to her study, belief in TT’s pain-reducing effects "had not been scientifically tested." Her data showed "that TT does not significantly decrease postoperative pain during the first hour following intervention." She suggested using TT as an adjunct to analgesics as one of a number of "interesting avenues for further study," not something her research demonstrated. Meehan herself responded to Mackey’s article in a letter pointing out "that the effects of TT on pain are unclear and replication studies are needed before any conclusions can be drawn" (1995). Meehan also pointed out that there is "no convincing evidence that TT promotes relaxation and decreases anxiety," and that claims about other benefits "are, in fact, speculation." These are the conclusions of a frequently cited researcher in this field! Yet Mackey’s article has undoubtedly led many nurses to believe that TT is a research-based practice.

So, if TT is not based on scientific research, what is it based on? Prana, as a form of life energy, is a Hindu term. Meehan notes that most studies describe TT in the context of Eastern philosophy. She could have said "Eastern religion," in which both founders of TT are well versed. Krieger, a Buddhist, admits that TT is based on the same principles as Buddhism (interview in Massage, Jan/Feb 1994, 56-60). Kunz is actively involved in theosophy, which is a mixture of Eastern religions, mysticism and the occult.

With this background, it is not surprising that TT is practically identical to an occult and witchcraft practice known as pranic (or auric) healing. This is described in theosophical books like Yogi Ramacharaka’s The Science of Psychic Healing (1909) and A. E. Powell’s The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man (1925), and in witchcraft books like Janet & Stewart Farrar’s A Witches Bible Compleat (1981) and Raymond Buckland’s Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft (1987). These sources describe all the beliefs and practices used in TT, even down to the detail of wrist-flicking after passing your hands over a patient, as if you were shaking water off your hands (O’Mathúna, 1998).

While this religious connection is denied by proponents of TT, it is accepted by the EEOC. It lists TT with other New Age religious practices from which an employee must be excused on the grounds of religious accommodation (EEOC Notice N-915.022). Thus, the teaching of TT at state institutions raising interesting questions about the separation of church and state.

What we see with TT is yet another example of uncritical acceptance of an alternative practice based on anecdotal testimony. We live in a "postmodern" age, where we are encouraged to move "beyond" the scientific and rational thinking of recent times. We are called to view personal and mystical experiences as more reliable than scientific studies, even in understanding the physical world. Postmodernists claim that science and medicine’s lack of support for TT only reveals their biases and prejudices.

In a postmodern culture, accepting everything in the name of diversity is more important than critically assessing all claims, and thereby possibly rejecting some. Given this popular and academic movement, we should soon expect to see snake-oil and blood-letting in our health care facilities. In spite of this, we must continue to call people’s attention to the facts. We must remember that many remain undecided about many of these practices. We must continue to clearly articulate our concerns and hope that some will heed them.

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References

H. N. Claman, Report of the Chancellor’s Committee on Therapeutic Touch (Denver: University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, 1994).

Philip E. Clarke and Mary Jo Clarke, "Therapeutic Touch: Is There a Scientific Basis for the Practice?" Nursing Research 33 (1984): 37-41.

Dolores Krieger, Accepting Your Power to Heal: The Personal Practice of Therapeutic Touch (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1993).

Rochelle Mackey, "Discover the Healing Power of Therapeutic Touch," American Journal of Nursing (April 1995): 27-32.

Thérèse Connell Meehan, "Therapeutic Touch and Postoperative Pain: A Rogerian Research Study," Nursing Science Quarterly 6 (1993): 69-78.

Thérèse Connell Meehan, Letter to the Editor, American Journal of Nursing (July 1995): 17.

Dónal P. O'Mathúna, "Postmodern Impact: Health Care," in The Death of Truth, ed. Dennis McCallum (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 58-84.

Dónal P. O’Mathúna, "The Subtle Allure of Therapeutic Touch," Journal of Christian Nursing 15 (Winter 1998), 4-13.

Linda A. Rosa, "Therapeutic Touch: Skeptics in Hand to Hand Combat Over the Latest New Age Health Fad," Skeptic 3 (Fall 1994): 40-9.

Barbara C. Walike, et al, ". . . attempts to embellish a totally unscientific process with the aura of science . . ." in Letters, American Journal of Nursing 75 (August 1975): 1275, 1278, 1282.


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