"Therapeutic Touch" Fails: a Rare Scientific Test

A simple experiment assesses whether a practitioner can really detect 'human energy fields'

AMHERST, NY-Therapeutic Touch (TT) is an "alternative" medicine technique said to be used by over 40,000 nurses in North America alone. Despite its widespread use, practitioners of TT have been reluctant to submit their therapy to scientific testing. But now researchers have conducted a rare scientific study of the key claim made by practitioners--the claim that they can detect a "human energy field" unknown to science and to "heal" people by "balancing" the field. The results of this test will be reported in the new Spring 1998 issue of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, available April 24. (Advance copies of the study are available upon request. Call 800-421-0351.)

"A recent review of the literature shows that there is no convincing evidence that the alleged healings by TT are anything more than the placebo effect," says Wallace Sampson, MD, Editor of the Scientific Review. "Most writings on TT are speculation and commentary, which simply do not address the core question: Can TT practitioners detect alleged 'energy fields' or not? This simple experiment, though limited in scope, is a direct, scientifically valid test of this question."

As detailed in the report, before the experiment, a TT practitioner agreed to the study protocol and asserted that she could distinguish between the "energy field" of an injured or painful limb and that of a normal limb. During the test, she attempted to distinguish the "energy fields" surrounding the arms of two different people, one with a painful wrist and one with no symptoms. When the practitioner knew the identity of the two participants (through the use of normal senses), she was able to correctly distinguish the two people. But when the identity of the two participants was hidden from her, she failed to correctly distinguish between the two, scoring no better than that predicted by chance.

"Even though the results of this single test were negative, it does not rule out the possibility that TT energy fields exist or that other TT practitioners can detect them," say Robert Glickman, RN, and Ed J. Gracely, PhD, authors of the new report. "However, the existence of 'human energy fields' and the ability to detect them remains extraordinarily doubtful.

"TT proponents have spent 20 years focusing on which ailments TT can be used for, without first determining if anyone could actually detect a human energy field. Practitioners have made a poor showing in the few times they have allowed themselves to be tested, and the large majority has been silent."

Despite this lack of evidence, TT is now supported by major nursing organizations such as the National League of Nurses and the American Nurses Association. "Energy-field disturbance" is now listed as a nursing diagnosis by the North American Nursing Diagnostic Association.

THE SCIENTIFIC REVIEW OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE is the only peer-reviewed medical journal in the world devoted exclusively to the scientific evaluation of "alternative" medical claims. The review publishes original research, critiques published studies, reviews available evidence for claims, and discusses the methods and principles of valid research. Topics covered in the Spring 1998 issue include acupuncture, oxygenation therapy, naturopathy, magnet therapy, St. John's Wort, the ethics of alternative medicine, and an experience with a Tijuana cancer doctor. The journal is published by Prometheus Books and sponsored by the Council for Scientific Medicine.