Wrestling with the science of touch-based healing practices

This story was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue with the title “Healing With Touch.” click here Subscribe to read more stories like these.


When he was 14 months old, my son’s breathing sounded like a diesel engine. Choking on peas, he couldn’t clear mucus from his throat and struggled to get a full breath. Jack had a double aortic arch, a condition in which an extra branch originating from the heart narrows the airway like a vise.

During arch incision surgery, doctors cut some nerves, causing Jack’s lymphatic system to leak. After days of food and water restrictions, he looked like an animal in a cage. His frantic pleas for “wa-wa” looped around the hospital ward and reverberated through my heart.

Instead of water, doctors provided potent drug vials to numb him. After 48 hours without rest, a nurse suggested we try Healing Touch, a complementary treatment that’s supposed to help the body heal through close body contact or physical touch.

Desperate with little to lose, I ignored the stimuli that were on my mind and accepted a session. I sat in a chair with Jack in my arms and watched Lisa Thompson, a pediatric nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, begin to move her hands a few inches above us. Within minutes, the beeping machines were silenced. Jack’s heart rate stabilized. For the first time in 10 days, we both caught our collective breath, and Jack fell asleep. During the 30-minute session, Thompson’s hands never touched Jack’s body. I felt equal parts confusion and relief.

Healing Touch was developed in the early 1980s by Colorado nurse Janet Mintgen, and is rooted in the idea that close-to-body touch or light touch can support the body’s ability to heal. While it remains on the fringes of mainstream medicine, Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloane Kettering, and more than 30 percent of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital system have incorporated healing touch therapies into conventional therapy for patient relief.

However, scientists cannot fully explain the mechanisms behind this practice, or results like my son’s experience. But some doctors, psychologists, and controlled studies have made compelling guesses about what might be going on beneath the surface.

During ancient times, “laying on of hands” was a primary treatment for people who were suffering. Today, energy-modifying practices themselves are beginning to find a place in modern medicine, particularly where effective treatments remain elusive.

The term “Biofield Therapies” was coined at a meeting of the National Institutes of Health in 1992. This group of treatments includes ancient Chinese therapies such as acupuncture and Qigong, as well as newly developed practices such as Reiki (which originated in Japan) and Healing Touch. “These treatments are based on the idea that the body has a biofield system, not unlike the circulatory, nervous, and lymphatic systems,” says Mimi Guarneri, MD, a cardiologist and president of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine in San Diego.

(credit: Kelly Jaeger/Discover)

The biofield isn’t quite as out there as it might seem. In modern medicine, doctors use electroencephalograms (EEGs) to study brain waves and electrocardiograms (EKGs) to assess heart health. Both tests measure parts of the biofield by placing electrodes on different areas of the body and interpreting the electromagnetic output. We even have devices that measure body temperature within a foot of the skin.

Biofield descriptions also include what Shamini Jin, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and founder of the Awareness and Healing Initiative, calls “hidden energy,” such as prana And spend, terms that have been translated as “life force” in India and China thousands of years ago. Studying this type of energy is more complex and difficult to measure.

“If I put on my hardcore scientist hat, we wouldn’t know what’s going on,” says Jain. “But with Healing Touch, we’re seeing positive changes in mood and physiology that matter to patients.” In studies, these changes ranged from self-reported reductions in pain and anxiety to increased function of natural killer cells during cancer treatment.

A 2021 study was published on 120 women with osteoarthritis in International Journal of Rheumatic DiseasesFor example, it was found that those who received energy therapy reported a significant reduction in pain compared to those who did not. Jain also reported positive results in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in cancer in 2012. With 76 breast cancer survivors divided into three unique groups, those who received the energy therapy showed a statistically significant reduction in fatigue. The same group also significantly improved cortisol rhythms, compared to those who received a placebo and no treatment.

These studies, and others with similar results over the years, investigate the question: Is it all in the recipient’s head?

Despite the presence of more than 400 clinical studies of biosphere therapies, including more than 125 randomized controlled trials, many members of the academic and medical community remain skeptical about the benefits of biosphere therapies.

To bypass the placebo effect, Shane Lin, a biomedical scientist and director of the Laboratory for Mind-Body Signaling and Energy Research at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed how energy affects cells in a petri dish. He says that when a DC electric field powered by a battery is applied at a speed of about 1 volt per meter, the range that the body can emit, and the cells on the plate change and migrate. You notice an effect similar to electrical energy when your hair stands still after you brush your dry hands on a wool sweater. While this force may work when we touch someone, Lin says the energy from a human therapist cannot exert enough energy to alter a patient’s physiology without physical contact.

In his opinion: “The positive research results for Healing Touch are a placebo effect, which means that the treatment may convey benefits, but only because people believe it works.” Research confirms that placebos can produce measurable physiological changes. These rates may include heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, all of which are stimulating our brains. But I’m left wondering how that might apply to the mind of my one-year-old son.

Other experts suggest, along with many of the placebo-controlled studies, that different mechanisms may be at work in biofield therapies. Modifying the body’s responses to stress and relaxation is one of them. We know that the body is built to heal itself, but barriers such as anxiety, poor diet and sleep deprivation prevent this, even with the best medical treatments. “[Healing Touch] It allows us to calm people down and put the body in the best place to heal,” Guarneri says.

Thompson says that feeling calm is the most common finding among her patients. “Actually, a lot of people sleep,” she says. In that relaxed state, modern treatments also become more effective.

A 2020 study of 39 veterans with PTSD was published in psychological trauma lends potential support to this theory. In the study, veterans who received a series of 10 Healing Touch treatments, just like those received by Jack, reported a clinically significant reduction in symptom severity, along with a range of positive physical and psychological effects.

When Jack was admitted to the hospital, Rady Children’s Hospital offered parents Healing Touch lessons at a discounted rate. During more than 30 hours of training spanning two weeks, I learned the techniques and practiced them on other students. The truth is, I’m not sure I did anything on a biological level. I’m sure I looked weird.

However, I started turning to Healing Touch to calm feelings of helplessness when a loved one was feeling unwell. I used this technique on Jack after surgery. I used it on my dad when an infection broke through his heart, and then while he was dying. Even my skeptical husband says he feels less nervous after the session. In each case, she made me feel closer to those who suffer. I’m not alone here either. Studies show that nurses who practice biofield therapies experience stress relief, improved immune function, and a greater sense of connection with their patients.

Recently, when a stomach bug destroyed our house, I found myself in familiar territory: in a children’s hospital with one of my sons. This time, I didn’t feel helpless, and I didn’t care because I looked silly. I called my mind a tree, planted my feet in the ground and put my hands to work.

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