Therapeutic touch?
Skeptics here bet against it

This and other pages found at created 1/20/97, last updated 1/22/97

Philadelphia Inquirer: Page One 1/21/97

Therapeutic touch? Skeptics here bet against it

reprinted with apologys (and no permission) by Eric Krieg - special thanks to the "inky" folk for not suing me
They offered $742,000 for proof that treating the "aura'' worked. One therapist took up the challenge. By Faye Flam INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

One important thing to note about the increasingly popular practice of therapeutic touch, or TT as it is sometimes called, is that there is no actual touching.

Nurse Robert Glickman suspected that there is no actual therapy either. Glickman, who works at Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia, says he was seeing more and more of his fellow nurses waving their hands a few inches from their patients' bodies in an attempt to alleviate pain. The technique is based on the notion that a body is surrounded by an "aura'' or by "energy fields'' that can become "congested'' when someone is hurting.

When a respected nursing journal, Today's OR Nurse, last year published an article instructing nurses in this technique, Glickman started to get annoyed. The journal, he said, "wanted us to take time away from caring for patients so we could run around flipping energy fields.''

Glickman enlisted help from the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, a group to which he belongs. He and his fellow skeptics, not believing in auras or energy fields, wanted proof, and they were willing to offer $742,000 for it. Advocates of TT say that more than 40,000 people around the country are practicing the therapy, at both private clinics and hospitals. They say that the practice eases pain and anxiety and sometimes speeds healing.

None of these claims is backed by large scientific studies. Practitioners say they don't yet know why, but they see it work in their patients. Nurses are offering TT in mainstream medical settings, such as New York's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Ruth Flaherty, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said therapeutic touch is practiced there, where it is sanctioned by both nurses and doctors."We all are for it [TT ] here,'' she said.

In Philadelphia, nurses at several hospitals, including Allegheny University/Hahnemann and Thomas Jefferson, offer TT informally to patients. "We've started a fledgling TT network,'' said nurse Marion Schmidt, of Thomas Jefferson. At Jeanes Hospital, chaplain Marthajane Robinson says she performs therapeutic touch. Most TT practitioners interviewed said they can both diagnose and heal using the energy field that they believe surrounds the body. The therapists say they can detect illness, injury, or pain as unusually hot or cold spots in this field. By massaging the field, they say, they can move the injured energy out through the fingertips, base of the spine, and toes.

In demonstrating the technique at the Mind/Body Connection clinic in King of Prussia, nurse Linda Degnan looked like a mime applying suntan lotion. Working on a seated patient, her hands massaged the air about 4 inches from the body, working downward from the head. She said she was kneading out points of "congestion'' in the "energy field.'' She ended at the feet, holding them on the floor -- what she called "grounding.''

"It works for migraine headaches, and for arthritis,'' she said.

Some therapists say TT speeds healing of bruises, and at Columbia Presbyterian, if patients wish, they can have it done during heart surgery, spokeswoman Flaherty said.

For their challenge, Glickman and his fellow skeptics brought in James Randi of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a former magician who now works debunking claims of the paranormal. A foundation he has set up has received hundreds of thousands of dollars to test such far-reaching claims, he says. The skeptics placed announcements in nursing journals, alternative-medicine newsletters and the Internet of their $742,000 prize to anyone who could pass their TT test.

Nancy Woods, a California freelance TT and massage therapist, was the only one to respond and agree to the test. In November, she flew to Philadelphia, though she said she didn't want the money. She said she went along with the test out of curiosity.

Glickman and Randi's test was designed to see whether Woods could distinguish an injured arm from a healthy one. The idea was for her to do this on two people, who would be hidden under blankets, and whose arms would be inside fiberglass arm casts. One was a man with no health problems; the other a woman with chronic wrist pain. Woods said she would be able to distinguish the injured arm simply by touching the energy field that she sensed around it.

As a control test designed to make sure that the set-up didn't hamper Woods' abilities, the skeptics asked her to perform TT over the arms of the two volunteers while seeing their faces and knowing which one had the injury. In 10 trials, she ran her hands over each cast and said that even through the fiberglass she could feel the difference in energy fields between the injured arm and the healthy one.

Then the skeptics covered the subjects with blankets, so just their cast-covered arms stuck out, and asked her to do the same thing. If, as she said, she could feel the injury through the "energy fields,'' she should have been able to distinguish the two volunteers. Instead, she got only 11 out of 20 tries correct -- close to the 50-50 score one would expect from random guesses. Glickman says Woods failed.

Woods protests. "They didn't tell me anything about the test,'' she said. She came in thinking they were going to try to figure out how the technique worked. "I thought the point wasn't to prove it works or doesn't work -- I know it does,'' she said. "It's such a wonderful healing technique.'' She charges $75 to perform TT on patients complaining of migraines, she says, but only if the patient is satisfied . Though the idea that the body has an aura goes back several thousand years, today's therapeutic touch was founded in the 1970s by Dolores Krieger, a nurse whose book, "The Therapeutic Touch," is considered a must-read for those in the practice. Degnan, of King of Prussia, says she uses TT mainly to ease pain and to reduce the stress of overburdened lives. ``It's wonderful for babies,'' she added. But TT, Degnan says, can have side effects. If the therapist works too much around a patient's head, she said, it could cause headaches.

One of her patients, Kathy Finn, 40, gets both TT and massage for chronic pain she says she has suffered since tearing soft tissue in her left shoulder 10 years ago while working as a luggage loader at the airport. Last fall, on the suggestion of her rehabilitation therapist, she started going to Degnan for $50 weekly sessions -- which are not covered by her insurance. ``Linda changed my life,'' she said. She feels her pain is eased.

Much to the chagrin of physicists, Degnan, Robinson and other TT therapists connect their practice with such principles as quantum mechanics and relativity. "Modern physics says everything is energy -- our bodies are just dense energy,'' Robinson said.

When asked whether either quantum mechanics or relativity could explain a human energy field, physicist Robert Park laughed for a good 30 seconds. "These people have no idea what science is about -- or what quantum mechanics and relativity are about,'' said Park, spokesman for the American Physical Society, the country's largest association of physicists, in Washington. "They invoke the symbols of science to justify themselves,'' he said.

Degnan and other TT therapists say that the technique has been scientifically tested, though the studies have not been published in mainstream medical journals. None of the positive tests is scientific, countered Wallace Sampson, a California physician who heads the National Council Against Health Fraud, a group that has also looked into TT's claims. Sampson says his group is aimed at educating people about "things that don't work.''

But some people do believe TT works, and perhaps there is an explanation -- one that requires no energy fields or other magical concepts, says Alfred P. Fishman, a physician in charge of testing alternative therapies at the University of Pennsylvania. In his practice of acute trauma, Fishman says he has seen that patients do better when they get more attention. If TT encourages nurses to spend more time with patients, then the practice will have a beneficial effect on them, he says. "You can juggle in front of them, wave your hands, or talk about a book,'' he said. "Anything you do that makes patients feel cared for, supported, that will also make them feel better.''

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    special thanks for support and assistance to Bill B. Tom Napier, Bob Glickman, James Randi and DeeAnne Wymer