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 MedPageToday.com for more health policy news.

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