A study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine is being cited as evidence for the efficacy of healing touch (HT). It enrolled 237 subjects who were scheduled for coronary bypass, randomized them to receive HT, a visitor, or no treatment; and found that HT was associated with a greater decrease in anxiety and shorter hospital stays.

This study is a good example of what I have called “Tooth Fairy Science.” You can study how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves in different situations (first vs. last tooth, age of child, tooth in baggie vs. tooth wrapped in Kleenex, etc.), and your results can be replicable and statistically significant, and you can think you have learned something about the Tooth Fairy; but your results don’t mean what you think they do because you didn’t stop to find out whether the Tooth Fairy was real or whether some more mundane explanation (parents) might account for the phenomenon.

Theoretical underpinnings

According to the study’s introduction:

 Healing touch is a biofield- or energy-based therapy that arose out of nursing in the early 1980s…HT aids relaxation and supports the body’s natural healing process, i.e., one’s ability to self-balance and self-heal.” This noninvasive technique involves (1) intention (such as the practitioner centering with the deep, gentle, conscious breath) and (2) placement of hands in specific patterns or sequences either on the body or above it. At its core, the theoretical basis of the work is that a human being is a multi-dimensional energy system (including consciousness) that can be affected by another to promote well-being.

They cite a number of references to theorists who support these ideas. They cite Ochsman; he wrote a book Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis which I reviewed, showing that despite the book’s title, there is no credible scientific basis and the “evidence” he presents cannot be taken seriously.

They cite Candace Pert, who said in the foreword to Ochsman’s book that Dr. Oschman “pulled” some energy away from her “stagnant” liver. She said the body is “a liquid crystal under tension capable of vibrating at a number of frequencies, some in the range of visible light,” with “different emotional states, each with a predominant peptide ligand-induced ‘tone’ as an energetic pattern which propagates throughout the bodymind.” Does this even mean anything?

They even cite the PEAR study, suggesting that it is still ongoing (it isn’t) and claiming it shows that “actions in one system can potentially influence actions of another on a quantum energetic level.” (It didn’t.)

This is nothing but imaginative speculation based on a misunderstanding of quantum physics and of what physicists mean by “energy.” It is a truism that electromagnetic phenomena are widespread in the human body, but there is a giant gap between that and the idea that a nurse with intention and hand movements can influence electrical, magnetic, or any other physical processes in the body to promote healing. There is no evidence for the alleged “human biofield.”

Previous Research

They cite several randomized controlled studies of HT over the last few years. One showed “better health-related quality of life” in cancer patients. One, the Post-White study, showed no difference between HT and massage. One small study by Ziembroski et al. that I couldn’t find in PubMed apparently showed no significant difference between HT and standard care for hospice patients. One study showed that HT raised secretory IgA concentrations, lowered stress perceptions and relieved pain, and results were greater with more experienced practitioners; but it only compared HT to no treatment and didn’t use any placebo treatment.
A pilot study  compared 4 noetic therapies-stress relaxation, imagery, touch therapy, and prayer, and found no difference.

A larger study  showed that neither touch therapy nor masked prayer significantly improved clinical outcome after elective catheterisation or percutaneous coronary intervention.

They cite a review of healing touch studies by Wardell and Weymouth  It concluded “Over 30 studies have been conducted with healing touch as the independent variable. Although no generalizable results were found, a foundation exists for further research to test its benefits.” Wardell noted that “the question has been raised whether the field of energy research readily lends itself to traditional scientific analysis due to coexisting paradoxical findings.” This is a common excuse of true believers who find that science is not cooperative in validating their beliefs.

Study Design

237 patients undergoing first-time elective coronary artery bypass surgery were randomly assigned to one of 3 groups: an HT group, a visitor group, and a standard care group. All received the same standard care from the hospital. The HT group received preoperative HT education and 3 HT interventions. Practitioners established a relationship with their patients, assessed their energy fields, and performed a variety of HT techniques based on their assessment, including techniques that involved light touch and those that involved no touch (practitioners’ hands held above body). Sessions lasted 20 to 90 minutes; each patient had the same practitioner throughout the study. The “visitor” group patients were visited by a nurse on the same schedule. The visits consisted of general conversation or the visitor remaining quietly in the room with the patient. They mentioned that some visits were shortened at the patient’s request.

Results of the Study

The six outcome measures were postoperative length of stay, incidence of postoperative atrial fibrillation, use of anti-emetic medication, amount of narcotic pain medication, functional status, and anxiety. HT had no effect on atrial fibrillation, anti-emetics, narcotics, or functional status. The only significant differences were for anxiety scores and length of stay. The length of stay for the HT group was 6.9 days, for the visitor group 7.7 days, and for the routine care group 7.2 days, suggesting that the simple presence of a visitor made things worse(!?). Curiously, for the subgroup of inpatients, the length of stay was HT 7.4 days, visitor 7.7 days and routine care 6.8 days, which was non-significant at p=0.26 and suggested that both HT and visitor made things worse.

The mean decreases in anxiety scores were HT 6.3, visitor 5.8, and control 1.8. They said this was significant at the p=0.01 level. But the tables for results broken down by inpatient and outpatient show no significant differences (p=0.32 for outpatients and p=0.10 for inpatients). If it was not significantly different for either subgroup, how could it be significant for the combined group?

These discrepancies are confusing. They suggest that the significant differences found were due to chance rather than to any real effect of HT..

Problems with this Study

Four out of the six outcomes were negative: there was no change in the use of pain medication, anti-emetic medication, incidence of atrial fibrillation, or functional status. The only two outcomes that were significant were hospital stay and anxiety, and these results are problematic and might have other explanations.

It is impossible to interpret what the difference in length of stay means, because they did not record the reasons for delaying discharge. As far as we can tell from the paper, the doctors deciding when to discharge a patient were not blinded as to which study group the patient was in. It’s interesting that the visitor group length of stay was intermediate in the outpatient subgroup, but higher than control for the combined inpatient/outpatient group. They offer no explanation for this. I was puzzled by the bar graph showing these numbers, because the numbers on the graph don’t seem to match the numbers in the text. The numbers were manipulated: they did a logarithm transformation for length of stay “to handle the skewness of the raw data.” I don’t understand that and can’t comment. The range of hospital days is such that the confidence intervals largely overlap. In all, these data are not very robust or convincing and they raise questions.

They interpret the anxiety reduction scores (HT 6.3, visitor 5.8, and control 1.8) as showing a significant efficacy of HT, but it seems more compatible with a placebo response and a slightly better response for the more elaborate placebo.

There were fewer patients (63) in the visitor group than in the HT and control groups (87 each). This was not explained. The comparison of groups appears to show that the control group had significantly higher pre-op anxiety scores than either of the other groups, which would tend to skew the results

They didn’t use a credible control group. A visitor sitting in the room can’t be compared to a charismatic touchy-feely hand-waving practitioner. Other studies have used mock HT where the hand movements were not accompanied by healing thoughts. These researchers rejected that approach because they didn’t think it would be ethical to offer a sham procedure where the practitioner only “pretended” to help. Hmm… One could argue that they have provided no evidence that HT practitioners are ever doing anything more than pretending to help.

They don’t comment on how practitioners were able to “assess the energy fields” of their patients. Emily Rosa’s landmark study  showed that practitioners who claimed to be able to sense those fields couldn’t.

The authors consist of 3 RNs (2 of them listed as healing touch therapists and presumably the ones who provided treatment in the study), a statistician with an MS, and two “directors of research” for whom no degrees are listed. The authors are clearly prejudiced in favor of HT.

They interpret this study as supporting the efficacy of HT. I don’t think it does that. I think the results are entirely compatible with a placebo response. With any made-up intervention presented with strong suggestion, one could expect to find one or two statistically significant differences when multiple endpoints are evaluated. And the magnitude of the improvement here is far from robust. This is the kind of result that tends to diminish in magnitude or vanish when better controls are used. I think the study is Tooth Fairy science, purporting to study the effects of a non-existent phenomenon, but actually only demonstrating a placebo response.

I wonder if better results might be obtained by having a patient advocate stay with the patient and offer reassurance, explanations, massage and other comfort measures – something like the doulas who have been shown to improve childbirth outcomes.

The frightening thing is that during the course of this study, patients increasingly bought into the HT belief system and refused to sign up for the study because they wanted HT and didn’t want to risk being assigned to a control group. And hospital staff bought into the belief system, were treated themselves, and became proponents of offering it to patients for other indications.

The paper ends with a rather incoherent statement one would not expect to find in a scientific medical journal: “At the very heart of this study is the movement toward recognizing that the metaphoric and physical heart are both very real, if we allow them to be.”

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.