Therapeutic touch (TT) is a brand of energy woo enjoying quite a bit of popularity, especially among nurses. TT involves a therapist moving his or her hands over the patient’s mythical “energy field”. Yes, it’s really a religious ritual, involving appeals to a postulated spiritual, non-physical “life energy field” extending beyond the body of the patient. In particular, someone’s wellness is apparently dependent on this energy field, which ostensibly can become unbalanced, misaligned, obstructed, or out of tune – all clinical descriptions are metaphorical, of course; no-one has really even attempted to explain what it means for an energy field to be “misaligned” rather than in balance (except by offering more metaphors). According to TT practitioners, though, this field can be manipulated by the right kinds of spell-casting gestures, i.e. making certain movements in the air above the surface of the patient’s body, whereby the healers may transfer some of their own life energy to the patient and thus restore harmony, allowing the body to heal itself (yes, it’s metaphors all the way down).
TT has no foundation in science, evidence or reality, of course (though it is based on familiar pre-scientific medicine), and even practitioners often admit that the energies in question cannot be detected by science – an admission that, of course, regularly forces them appeal to shortcomings of careful investigation and bias-controlled evidence assessment rather than shortcomings with their own convictions, which are not based on investigation and bias-controlled evidence assessment (practitioners cannot detect the purported energy field either; further evidence here). Of course, science usually detects energy by its effects, for instance effects on the health of patients. Investigations of TT haven’t shown any effects on the health of patients either. Energy works in mysterious ways, apparently.
Despite being unmeasurable, some TT defenders claim it is scientific because it is based on quantum physics, since quantum physics to most New Agers means something roughly equivalent to “shamanic vibrations in the dolphin dimension”. TT is not based on quantum physics. The popularity of the technique among nurses (apparently more than 100,000 people have been trained in TT) has little to do with its purported scientific basis (or effects); presumably one of TT’s central proponents, Rebecca Witmer, accidently reveals much of the reason when she says that “[t]hose who practice Therapeutic Touch often report reaping benefits for themselves. For example, the ability of TT to reduce burnout in health care professionals has been well-documented.” Add to that communal reinforcement, appeals to secret powers that physicians don’t have, regression to the mean and some positive feedback and the popularity becomes quite understandable. (And for patients, there is real evidence that supportive therapy of breast cancer patients improves mood and pain control – but not longevity). A defense of TT by one Cynthia Hutchison is discussed here.
The technique was invented and popularized in the 1970s by nurse, New Thought proponent and a theosophist Dolores Krieger, a faculty member at NYU’s Division of Nursing and student of Dora Kunz, who is convinced that the palms are chakras that channel healing energy. This is false. Krieger is the author of Therapeutic Touch: How to Use Your Hands to Help and to Heal (1979) and several other books. She has no peer-reviewed scientific publications, but has claimed that serious, well-designed studies of TT nevertheless violate basic principles of scientific investigations (no further details as to how) on the simple grounds that they don’t give her the results she wants.
A good and detailed introduction here.
Diagnosis: TT is New Age fluff and nonsense with – demonstrably – no basis in reality; yet it remains rather amazingly popular, and though Krieger seems convinced of her own importance as a contributor to progress and happiness, she is simply a deluded old religious fundamentalist. It’s ultimately rather sad.