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Dynamic Chiropractic – May 4, 1998, Vol. 16, Issue 10

A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch, or ...

The April Fool's Issue of JAMA Is Not Touching

By Louis Sportelli, DC
(Editor's note: Therapeutic touch practitioners claim to treat many conditions by using the hands to "manipulate a 'human energy field' perceptible above the patient's skin.")

There is no doubt that therapeutic touch is gaining momentum.

However, in its inimitable style, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published in the April 1, 1998 issue a condemnation of therapeutic touch. A look at the authors who helped to draft and edit this report reveals a name which is familiar to most doctors of chiropractic, none other than Stephen Barrett. The fine print at the bottom of the article suggests that Barrett added background material and edited the report for the publication.

Guess what? The findings suggest that based on this experiment with 21 therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners, "claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified."

The main outcome measure asked practitioners of TT to state whether the investigator's unseen hand hovered above their right hand or their left hand. To show the validity of the TT theory, the practitioners should be able to identify the investigator's hand 100% of the time. (Editor's note : i.e., be able to feel the human energy field of the investigator's hovering hand and identify which hand it was over). A score of 50% would be expected through chance alone.

The results of this study demonstrated that there was no significant correlation between the practitioner's score and the length of experience. The 21 practitioners with TT experience were tested under blinded conditions to determine whether they could correctly identify which of their hands was closest to the investigator's hand. Based upon the fact that the therapeutic touch practitioners could not obtain a greater than random chance identification of the investigator's hand, this led to the sweeping conclusion that all claims are groundless and further professional use is unjustified.

The experiment made the evening news, and the young 9-year old budding scientist was shown "doing her experiment." The segment went on to interview a very prestigious cardiac surgeon who has incorporated therapeutic touch into his surgical procedures and had a healthy respect for the potential power of human touch despite the fact that this experiment did not demonstrate positive outcomes.

It is no surprise that the Barretts of the world would jump for glee at the failure of this TT experiment and attempt to use this as evidence that TT is groundless. The encouraging aspect of this recently published article, so appropriately dated April 1, l998, is that the news reporters and the opened-minded practitioners are not ready to discount the value of any potential benefits of therapeutic touch. This is encouraging because it demonstrates a new mindset, not only in the media, but in those of the scientific community. I am certain it was inconceivable to the editors of JAMA that the recent ratings of importance of topics last year put alternative therapies 68th out of 73. One year later, an almost inconceivable shift in significance resulted when alternative therapies jumped to 3rd in a total of 86. The editors have obviously been bitten by the keen interest in truly investigating this phenomenon called alternative therapies.

This therapeutic touch experiment is at best controversial in that it involved the determination of a left and right hand in a noncontact, "field effect" of energy. What does it matter if the healer is able to tell left from right? Is this a relevant issue on which to focus an entire experiment? Yet the literature on magnets and the electromagnetic fields surrounding high tension lines continues to uncover new and telling evidence that something is happening. Is it chemical, psychological or physical, or is it the combination of ingredients that cause the reaction that we are not now able to explain?

The value of human physical touch, however, is as old as recorded history. There are few human beings who have not felt the comfort from the touch of a loved one, a mother, a friend, and yes even a healer. Without therapeutic touch, which could be likened to nutrition for the soul, the human species has been shown to suffer in development and growth. Without touch, the human species would be hampered in its ability to communicate, express love, compassion, understanding, comfort, and yes, even healing.

The basis of touch and the inexplicable dynamics which occur between individuals when touch is present cannot be denied, nor can it be refuted by anyone who has experienced the innate power of a human being to respond to positive touch.

While this single experiment clearly developed by a 9-year-old may in some way be unique and interesting, it does not, however, justify the Journal of the American Medical Association making a quantum leap in denouncing the entire field of therapeutic touch any more than a positive outcome from this experiment would mandate accepting all the science or information about therapeutic touch.

It is ironic, however, that JAMA is coming out with a journal on alternative medicine to be released this fall. Will this be truly a science-based journal to seek answers, or merely a new and different way to influence those who read JAMA with prejudicial views and biased articles?

The movement toward alternative healing is growing and essentially has taken on a life of its own. There is no movement today as strong as that of the alternative health paradigm shift which has occurred in our society. Can we be so certain that therapeutic touch is not justified, when in my short memory, spinal manipulation was quackery, intervertebral disc syndromes were figments of chiropractors' imaginations, vitamins were unnecessary, and the body and mind were separate and distinct? My, look how far we have come! Perhaps it is time the skeptics of the world get their hands around this phenomenon and feel the effects of a healing movement which is focused on wellness. Then again, if they get their hands around it, they would be touching it, and we know touch is unjustified.

Until next time, as the AT&T motto goes, "Reach out and touch someone"... who knows what will happen!

Louis Sportelli, DC
Palmerton, Pennsylvania

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