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Therapeutic Touch

A modern variation of the 'laying on of hands', therapeutic touch is one of the most controversial forms of alternative therapy.


Practitioners say that it heals by correcting imbalances in the energy field that emanates from the body, while mainstream critics respond that there is no evidence that such a field exists, or that it would have anything to do with health if it did. In any event, its proponents say therapeutic touch can heal wounds, relieve tension headaches and reduce stress. According to Nurse Healers, the therapy's leading advocacy group, it also reduces pain and anxiety, promotes relaxation and facilitates 'the body's natural restorative processes'. Therapeutic touch is usually employed as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, standard medical therapies. For example, it is sometimes used to relieve discomfort between scheduled doses of pain medication for hospitalized patients. It is also employed by hospice nurses to relieve pain in terminally ill patients and to help the family accept the impending death of their loved one.

Procedure of Treatment

Despite its name, therapeutic touch rarely involves physical contact between practitioner and patient. Instead, the therapist will move his or her hands just above your body. You will be asked to sit or lie down before the procedure begins. No disrobing is necessary. The session is conducted in four steps:

Centering: The practitioner begins by 'centering' himself-attaining a quiet, meditative state in which he is focused on and attuned to the patient's needs. Experienced practitioners can usually complete this process within a few minutes.

Assessment: The practitioner will then move his hands from head to foot along your body, holding them two to four inches away. This is done to assess the condition of the energy field that is thought to surround the body. Clues to the status of the field include feelings in the palms of the hands and 'other intuitive or sensory cues' that signal areas of 'congestion' or 'blockage'.

Treatment: Once he discovers a 'blocked' area, the practitioner will move his hands in a flowing motion from the top of the location down and away from your body. This action is repeated until the practitioner no longer feels the blockage, or until you relief.

Evaluation: After you have had a chance to rest, the practitioner will ask you about your response to therapy and reassess your 'energy field' to make sure that no blockages remain evident. Some practitioners add another step to the treatment. Called energy transfer, it calls for the therapist to place one hand on your back, in the kidney area, and hold the other hand two to three inches from the corresponding location on your abdomen. He then visualizes energy passing from the hand on your back to the one held above you.

Treatment Time: Most sessions take 10 to 20 minutes; few exceed 30 minutes. Treatment stops when the practitioner no longer senses problems in the energy field, or feels you have had enough.
Treatment Frequency: The number of treatments needed varies according to the problem and the patient. A headache in an otherwise healthy person may require only one session; a person with a chronic illness may require multiple sessions. For frail, sick, and very young or very old patients, proponents recommend keeping the sessions short and conducting them more frequently.


Therapeutic touch was developed in the early 1970s by Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., a professor of nursing at New York University, and Dora Kunz, a 'natural healer'. Krieger and Kunz first taught the technique to Krieger's graduate nursing students, and it remains primarily a nursing intervention today. It has been taught at more than 100 colleges and universities since the 1970s, and is currently offered in about 70 health care facilities nationwide. All told, Krieger says she has taught the technique to more than 43,000 health care professionals and several thousand lay persons. Controversy over therapeutic touch focuses on the 'energy field' that its practitioners seek to balance. Krieger claims that the field can be sensed through 'hand chakras', centres of consciousness posited in Indian mystical writings. As proof of the field's existence, other proponents cite images of an energy aura taken with Kirililan photography, a technique in which the hands are placed on film and a low-amp electrical current produces the picture. Critics dismiss the entire energy theory as mystical, and ascribe any benefits of the technique to a positive psychological response to the care and attention provided by the practitioner. They argue that Kirilian images of the energy field are nothing more than the result of increased pressure or moisture. They also cite a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which 21 self-described practitioners of therapeutic touch failed to detect energy from the nearby hand of an investigator when their view of the hand was blocked. Advocates of therapeutic touch charge that the study was seriously flawed. They point out that the participants' credentials were never checked, that the number of participants was inadequate, and that one of the authors (a coordinator of the National Council Against Health Fraud's Task Force on Questionable Nursing Practices) was hopelessly biased. They add that therapeutic touch is not simply a mechanical manipulation of energy fields, but an act of compassion that requires personal interaction between patient and therapist. Some proponents of therapeutic touch speculate that mechanisms other than an energy field may be at work. In fact, Krieger herself states that the procedure conveys a 'sense of deep peace that presages a rapid (two-to-four minute) relaxation response', thus laying the groundwork for positive changes in the patient's immune system. Whatever the explanation may be, a number of studies have detected genuine improvements following the administration of therapeutic touch. In one trial, in which the patients did not know whether or not they were being given the therapy, skin wounds healed significantly faster in those who received it. Another trial found that therapeutic touch effectively reduced headache pain, and a third investigation found that it reduced the time needed to calm hospitalized infants and toddlers after stressful experiences such as examinations and surgery. Nevertheless, other studies have failed to show conclusive results. In one trial for postoperative pain, therapeutic touch reduced discomfort by only 13 per cent, versus a 42 per cent reduction afforded by standard pain medication. Researchers were forced to conclude that although the technique might reduce the need for drugs, it cannot be used to replace them. Likewise, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association has admonished patients to 'refuse to pay for this procedure until or unless additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect'.

Who Should Avoid This Therapy?

There are no medical conditions that preclude treatment with therapeutic touch. However, some people seem more susceptible to it than others. Among those best suited to it are pregnant women, newborns, children, older adults and people with psychiatric disorders. Mainstream critics of the procedure warn everyone to avoid it, saying that there is no reason to believe that it will have any effect.


There have been reports of nausea and dizziness following the procedure, although it is unlikely that therapeutic touch was the cause. In addition, one expert warns that directing too much energy into a person's energy field can cause 'discomfort and irritability'.