A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch

Linda Rosa, BSN, RN; Emily Rosa; Larry Sarner; Stephen Barrett, MD
JAMA. 1998;279:1005-1010

Context.—Therapeutic Touch (TT) is a widely used nursing practice rooted in mysticism but alleged to have a scientific basis. Practitioners of TT claim to treat many medical conditions by using their hands to manipulate a "human energy field" perceptible above the patient's skin.

Objective.—To investigate whether TT practitioners can actually perceive a "human energy field."

Design.—Twenty-one practitioners with TT experience for from 1 to 27 years were tested under blinded conditions to determine whether they could correctly identify which of their hands was closest to the investigator's hand. Placement of the investigator's hand was determined by flipping a coin. Fourteen practitioners were tested 10 times each, and 7 practitioners were tested 20 times each.

Main Outcome Measure.—Practitioners of TT were asked to state whether the investigator's unseen hand hovered above their right hand or their left hand. To show the validity of TT theory, the practitioners should have been able to locate the investigator's hand 100% of the time. A score of 50% would be expected through chance alone.

Results.—Practitioners of TT identified the correct hand in only 123 (44%) of 280 trials, which is close to what would be expected for random chance. There was no significant correlation between the practitioner's score and length of experience (r=0.23). The statistical power of this experiment was sufficient to conclude that if TT practitioners could reliably detect a human energy field, the study would have demonstrated this.

Conclusions.—Twenty-one experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator's "energy field." Their failure to substantiate TT's most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.

From the Questionable Nurse Practices Task Force, National Council Against Health Fraud Inc (Ms L. Rosa), and the National Therapeutic Touch Study Group (Mr Sarner), Loveland, Colo; and Quackwatch Inc, Allentown, Pa (Dr Barrett). Ms E. Rosa is a sixth-grade student at Loveland, Colo.

Ms E. Rosa designed and conducted the tests and tabulated her findings. Mr Sarner did the statistical analysis. He and Ms L. Rosa recruited the test subjects, performed the literature analysis, and drafted this report. Dr Barrett added background material and edited the report for publication.

EDITOR'S NOTE.—The American public is fascinated by alternative (complementary, unconventional, integrative, traditional, Eastern) medicine. Some of these practices have a valid scientific basis; some of them are proven hogwash; many of them have never been adequately tested scientifically. "Therapeutic Touch" falls into the latter classification, but nonetheless is the basis for a booming international business as treatment for many medical conditions. This simple, statistically valid study tests the theoretical basis for "Therapeutic Touch": the "human energy field." This study found that such a field does not exist. I believe that practitioners should disclose these results to patients, third-party payers should question whether they should pay for this procedure, and patients should save their money and refuse to pay for this procedure until or unless additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect.

George D. Lundberg, MD, Editor

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