The effect of therapeutic touch is based on pure chance

There is no “alternative medicine.” There is only medicine:

  • Medicine that has been tested and found to be safe and effective. Use it; pay for it.
  • And, medicine that has been tested and found to be unsafe or ineffective. Don’t use it; don’t pay for it.
  • And, medicine for which there is some plausible reason to believe that it might be safe and effective. Test it and then place it into one of the other two categories.

Dr. Phil Fontanarosa and I published that statement in JAMA on Nov. 11, 1998, in a theme issue devoted to the scientific study of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” The statement still remains true today.

Do you know about Therapeutic Touch (TT)? It is actually about Therapeutic Non-Touch. The theory holds that the human body emits energy fields of a type for which no physical, electronic, chemical, or other scientific modality has yet determined its existence.

It further holds that trained practitioners of this craft can detect and manipulate this “Human Energy Field,” thereby promoting healing, by passing their hands at some non-touching distance away from the body and molding the energy to a good effect.

Sound good to you?

In 1998, we published a paper in JAMA entitled “A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch” by four authors, lead author Emily Rosa, at that time 9 years old. The study was for a fourth grade science project. JAMA had no policy as to whether authors needed to be above or below any particular age, of a certain gender, skin or eye color, place of birth or sexual orientation. It was the quality and relevance of the science that mattered to us. After a few rounds of peer review and revision, we published it on April 1, 1998.

By theory, TT practitioners should be able to detect while blinded an energy field 100% of the time. In this experiment, the investigators demonstrated that trained practitioners of TT, when blinded, had a 50% chance of detecting an energy field. Pure chance; bah, humbug.

Needless to say, there was not a uniform reader response. But Emily received the 1998 Ig Nobel Award at Harvard, and delivered the Ig Nobel address at MIT.

The science in that article has so far stood that test of time for 13 years.

Of course, some of the “alties” and the SCAM…ers (Supplements, Complementary, Alternative, Medicine) still practice Therapeutic Touch; patients ante up good money to pay for it; fancy medical centers give in to their marketing departments to pander to their local markets by providing TT; some medical school professors earn big TV bucks pushing such.

And the arbiter, Mr. Google, reports 2,210,000 results when the words “Therapeutic Touch” are entered.

Such are the ways of the world. There ain’t no justice. They know not what they do.

Viewed another way, even the non-touch of an individual believed by a sick person to be a healer can heal.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit for more health policy news.

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  • Ardella Eagle

    Can we say, “Placebo effect”?

    Quackery aside, I thought this was to be an article on the necessity of HUMAN TOUCH AND CONTACT as it relates to the healing process, both physical and mental.  I’m sorry to see that I was wrong.

    I’m also starting to wonder at the objectivity of the editors of JAMA.  Granted, “JAMA had no policy as to whether authors needed to be above or
    below any particular age, of a certain gender, skin or eye color, place
    of birth or sexual orientation…”,however, I would hope that some credentialing, such as a medical degree, would be necessary to submit a paper to your esteemed publication.  Be expecting my thesis on accelerated healing processes in individuals with potential nuclear poisoning soon.

    • Heather Etchevers

      As a professional scientist with all the credentials you might want, I would beg to differ.

      Anyone can submit a paper. I would hope that no credentials would be sufficient to push bad science (or, if you prefer the term, “evidence-based medicine”) through ANY esteemed publication.

      “After a few rounds of peer review and revision” are the checks and balances, by people who make it their living and calling to do what I do. When it works well, any person, be they citizen (i.e. amateur) or professional scientists, should be able to publish their work and have it considered by the greater community at large.

      In the “all that really matters” vein, though, it is always helpful to know how wellness was achieved, in the hopes that the results could be reproducible from one patient to another and more than just that one individual with their baggage of personal beliefs could be helped, when the ailment is the same.

  • Sara Vicars Patterson

    “Viewed another way, even the non-touch of an individual believed by a sick person to be a healer can heal.”     Your very own words say it all…. if a patient believes a therapy is helping them then it will.  I am sure you have seen many ‘miracles’ in your practice.  Anyone practicing medicine has.  What difference does it make how the patient attained wellness????  All that really matters is that they are well.

  • Anonymous

    Even an unintended touch by say a dentist on a patient’s cheek is a human connection, that has very little intent within it, but has therapeutic power. A physical brush with a stranger in a subway has a warming potential. The warmth of the hand or body part, I think, has much to benefit the “touched”.

  • Anonymous

    A chance touch with any other human is therapeutic: e.g. a dentists touch on the cheek, a stranger’s brush on the subway. Physical warmth is the reason, I think.

  • Dana Lisa Young

    Dr. Lundberg provides three criteria for what can be considered ‘medicine’, one of them being: “Medicine for which there is some plausible reason to believe that it might be safe and effective.” If this is accepted criteria in the medical community, there is an opportunity to demonstrate that Therapeutic Touch, Reiki and a number of other CAM therapies do have a valid place within that criteria. The particular study he references is problematic, because the ability to sense “energy fields” consistently is subjective. However, that doesn’t render the therapy itself ineffective or unsafe. Ultimately, what is more valuable and measurable is what the recipient feels or how their body responds to treatment, NOT what the practitioner senses, because that can be influenced by any number of factors.

    I have a professional Reiki practice where I regularly treat clients. There are times when I don’t always sense “energy fields”, “movement” or any kind of or labeling you want to use in a consistent way, but I have a treatment protocol I follow and my clients will tell you that they feel better – more relaxed, are in less discomfort, sleep better, or feel more refreshed. My clients with chronic illnesses report an improved quality of life. For some people, these changes can make a significant difference in the lives. It is worth taking more seriously.

    I would like to stress that no one is saying that patients should stop recieving medical treatment or take medications if their condition requires it. However, medicine and medical treatments do not always cure people or relieve their symptoms in a satisfactory way (I know this from personal experience, having lived with congenital cervical spine stenosis as well as Interstitial Cystitis.) In those cases, we need to consider offering supportive, and non (or minimally) invasive CAM therapies to promote improved quality of life, along with medical treatment as appropriate.

    On the medical side of things,I would like to share a very promising study published last year in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, entitled “Effects of Reiki on Autonomic Activity Early After Acute Coronary Syndrome”:

    In this radomized, controlled study, patients who received a 20-minute Reiki treatment within three days after suffering a heart attack showed improved mood and heart rate variability (HRV). It’s worth taking a closer look.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is a sad statement that you still say therre is no evidence.  It is hard to find something if you are blinded by beliefs and don’t look for it.  Our hospital research department has close to 800 medical papers documenting integrative therapies, including energy work such as theraputic touch.  The integrative groups are held to an impossibly high standard where hundreds of studies just are not sufficient evidence, while we run after the latest drug following a single study.  a local hospital published results last year showing over $2000 saving per patient if integrated approaches were used.

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