A No-Touch Therapy

  • Keeping her hands a few inches away from her seated patient, nurse Janet Quinn moves them around his body from head to toe, as if she were brushing away cobwebs. At the end of each sweeping motion, her eyes closed, she makes a dismissive gesture, as if shaking water off from her fingertips.

    Quinn is giving "therapeutic touch" (TT), a controversial form of therapy that is spreading through the ranks of nursing and already claims tens of thousands of practitioners in the U.S. and many foreign countries. According to its proponents, TT not only comforts and relaxes patients, but also relieves pain, produces chemical changes in the blood and promotes healing.

    Or maybe, as its detractors contend, TT is a form of New Age mumbo jumbo, a no-touch laying on of hands that has no legitimate place in medicine. Leading the attack is Rocky Mountain Skeptics, a group of scientists and other professionals based in Boulder, Colorado, who investigate what they call "pseudo science." Its president, computer specialist Bela Scheiber, charges that TT is "paranormal and religious activity masquerading as science."

    Practitioners of TT claim that their hand motions actually smooth kinks or "congestion" in the "energy field" that surrounds every human being. And that, they say, is what makes the treatment work. As proof of TT's efficacy, they cite "scientific" reports in such obscure journals as Subtle Energies and Psychoenergetic Systems, as well as stories in popular magazines.

    Vern Bullough, a retired professor of nursing at the State University of New York, scoffs at these claims. "None of the research demonstrated that there's any effect," he says, "and many of the conclusions are subjective." He also notes that no evidence exists for a human energy field. Still TT seems to have gone mainstream. It is taught in nursing schools, practiced in hospitals and described matter-of-factly, without reservation, in Techniques in Clinical Nursing, a widely distributed textbook.

    In Toronto, where TT is practiced routinely in several hospitals, anyone seeking information about the technique can dial 65-TOUCH to reach the local TT network, which has 600 members in Ontario. At Denver's Presbyterian -- St. Luke's Hospital, where nurses routinely practice TT, the staff has created a "Department of Energy." And at Bristol Hospital in Connecticut, a quarter of the caregivers have completed an in-house, 15-hour course in TT.

    Why do nurses take so readily to therapeutic touch? One reason, suggests Carla Selby, of the Rocky Mountain group, is that it's a form of empowerment for women who generally feel that they are second-class citizens in the medical profession -- unappreciated and directed by (mostly male) doctors to perform largely scut work. Being allowed to practice TT in hospitals, she says, makes them feel more involved in the healing process. "I'm a feminist," Selby says, "and I'm all for nurses getting out from under the thumbs of doctors. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do."

    But what's the harm? ask TT devotees, who seem bewildered by the flap. Kathy Butler, a Melbourne geneticist concerned about TT inroads into Australia, has one answer. "Health funding is in crisis," she says. "Surely valuable nursing hours are better used with scientifically proven, genuinely useful nursing methods."

    In the U.S. too, federal medical funding is getting tighter, but not for therapeutic touch. Over the past decade, the nih has awarded at least $150,000 in grants for TT research; and the Department of Defense, through Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, has just awarded a University of Alabama researcher the largest TT grant yet: $355,000 to study the effects of the practice on burn patients. "What next for the dod?" asks Scheiber. "Faith healing?"

    Despite the growing skepticism, TT practitioners show no reticence in discussing their work. "It's not something we do under the table," says Dolores Kreiger, who invented the technique in the 1970s as a professor at the New York University nursing school and claims to have taught it since then to some 45,000 health professionals. "There is validity to therapeutic touch," she insists. "Otherwise we would have been burned as witches long ago."

    Yet the steps for administering TT to a patient seem akin to witchcraft. As described by nurse Quinn, a leading advocate of the technique, they include "centering" within one's head, assessing which areas of the energy field feel "out of balance" with the rest of the field, clearing and mobilizing the energy field, and finally, "directing" energy to facilitate healing. Quinn admits, though, that "we don't have empirical data to demonstrate the existence of a personal energy field. It's a working hypothesis. In science, you're allowed to do that."

    Mystical talk of energy fields spurred the Rocky Mountain Skeptics to organize protests against the University of Colorado Center for Human Caring (C.H.C.), which appears to be a hotbed of the TT movement. There therapeutic touch is thriving despite appeals by the skeptics to the university, the state board of nursing and even the Colorado legislature to justify teaching the bizarre technique. A university committee, while acknowledging "methodological flaws" in TT, recommended retaining it in the curriculum, largely on the grounds of "academic freedom."

    Critics of TT concede that it can alleviate tension and anxiety. But Selby asks, "Why doesn't the nurse just come in and sit on the side of the patient's bed and talk, perhaps hold his hand? It would have the same effect." And in a column in the Toronto Star, Henry Gordon, a local skeptic, likened that relief to the placebo effect, which, he wrote, "makes TT no different from the laying on of hands." Dr. William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, in Loma Linda, California, agrees: "I see therapeutic touch as a form of faith healing that has captured the imagination of a few nurses who happen to be in pretty powerful positions of influence within the nursing profession."

    Jarvis may have been referring to Jean Watson, who heads Colorado's C.H.C. and accepts TT, and to Quinn, an associate professor at the university's health sciences center. Quinn teaches TT courses, lectures widely and has also produced a $675 video called Therapeutic Touch: Healing Through Human Energy Fields, which the Manhattan-based National League for Nursing is promoting.

    The league, a major accreditor of nursing schools, will probably continue to lend its considerable clout to TT; its president-elect for 1995 is none other than Jean Watson.