Fourth-grade science project casts
doubt on `therapeutic touch'

By Brenda C. Coleman
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
March 31, 1998

CHICAGO (AP) -- A study conducted by a 9-year-old girl for a science project and published in a distinguished medical journal concludes that "therapeutic touch," in which a healer supposedly manipulates a patient's energy field, is bunk.

Emily Rosa, the daughter of a registered nurse and an inventor, found that 21 experienced practitioners were unable to detect the field they supposedly manipulate to heal.

Her study was published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association and immediately drew fire from supporters of the practice, who say it is respected worldwide.

Therapeutic touch has been used to treat problems ranging from burns to cancer.

The technique is practiced in at least 80 North American hospitals and taught in more than 100 colleges and universities in 75 countries, said the study, written by the Loveland, Colo., fourth-grader, her parents and a Pennsylvania doctor who works to uncover quackery.

Those who practice the technique say an energy field emanates from every person and is detectable above the skin. The healer moves his or her hands over the patient's body to modify the field. Touching the patient isn't necessary.

More than 100,000 people worldwide have been taught the technique, including at least 43,000 health-care professionals, the study said.

Emily set up a cardboard screen through which practitioners put their hands. With their sight blocked, she asked them to identify which of their hands was near one of hers.

The 21 practitioners chose the correct hand 44 percent of the time. That was slightly less than the 50 percent chance they would have had of choosing the correct hand by guessing, authors said.

"To our knowledge, no other objective, quantitative study involving more than a few therapeutic touch practitioners has been published, and no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from therapeutic touch," the study concluded.

"These facts, together with our experimental findings, suggest that therapeutic touch claims are groundless and that further use of therapeutic touch by health professionals is unjustified."

Emily's mother, Linda Rosa, acknowledged that she is a longtime skeptic of the practice. Emily said she conducted her study for a school science fair two years ago because she was a bit skeptical herself and "just wanted to see if they could feel the human energy field."

There were no winners in the fair. She got a blue ribbon like everyone else.

The research was never intended to be published, Rosa said. But word spread, and the PBS show "Scientific American Frontiers" featured Emily's tests on Nov. 19. Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch Inc., based in Allentown, Pa., suggested submitting the findings to JAMA.

Dolores Krieger, professor emeritus of nursing science at New York University and co-founder of therapeutic touch in 1972, scoffed at Emily's findings and said she was "astounded" JAMA published the study.

"It's poor in terms of design and methodology," she said. She said the designer of the study -- Emily -- should not have been the one to conduct it, and the 21 subjects were too few and unrepresentative.

The validity of therapeutic touch has been established in numerous doctoral dissertations and "innumerable" clinical studies, said Ms. Krieger, who has written two books about it.

The practice has been safe and helpful in improving conditions from premenstrual syndrome, headaches, burns and bone fractures to asthma, reproductive problems, cancer and AIDS, according to one of her books.

Dr. George D. Lundberg, editor of JAMA for 16 years, said he handled the editing of Emily's report and the research is sound.

"I do not believe age should be a bar on anything, either young or old," he said. "It's the quality of the science that matters."

Patricia W. Abrams, 59, said therapeutic touch saved her life 17 years ago after conventional doctors had given up on treating her for agnogenic myloid fibrosis, a fatal, incurable blood disorder.

"I've never been healthier," said Mrs. Abrams, co-owner of an educational publishing company in Washington, Conn.

She said she underwent therapeutic touch weekly for two years, along with meditation and visualization. She later learned therapeutic touch herself and uses it in her volunteer work with hospice patients.

"It truly changed my life," Mrs. Abrams said.

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