Introduction to Therapeutic Touch

‘Therapeutic Touch has been derived from the ancient practice of the laying-on of hands. It is based on the fundamental assumption that there is a universal life energy that sustains all living organisms. Although the idea of a subtle vital energy is only just beginning to be accepted in Western medicine, it has long been a feature of Eastern therapeutic systems. In India, for example, the energy is called ‘prana’ and is associated with the breath. From ancient times, breathing exercises known as ‘pranayama’ (literally translated as the ‘regulation of prana’) were designed to enhance well-being through a balancing of the life-energy flow.

Currently, the concept of a universal life energy is being linked to field theory and seen as exhibiting the characteristics of a force field. In physical science, a field is generally defined as a continuous quality or condition throughout space. For example, we know that gravity, as a field, exists everywhere in space, it is more intense, however, in the area around a planet or other celestial body. Since life is ‘an inherent principle in the dynamics of the universe,’ we make the assumption that the vital energy is also a field force, that is, that it permeates space, becoming more concentrated within and around living organisms. Thus all living things without exception share in a generalized life-energy field, in the same way that all physical objects in space are subject to gravity.

In a state of health, the life energy flows freely in, through, and out of the organism in a balanced manner, nourishing all the organs of the body. On disease, the flow of the energy is obstructed, disordered, and/or depleted. Therapeutic Touch practitioners, having learned to attune to the universal field through a conscious intent, direct the life energy into the patients to enhance their vitality. The practitioners also help the patients assimilate the energy by releasing congestion and balancing areas where the flow has become disordered. Drawing upon the universal field, the practitioners do not become drained of their own energy but, on the contrary, are continually replenished. Since the localized field of the patient penetrates and extends beyond the body, actual physical contact is not necessary for Therapeutic Touch. In fact, for reasons that will be discussed later, most practitioners prefer to work a few inches from the surface of the patient’s skin.

In the United States the person principally responsible for the contemporary reintroduction and development of this technique is Dora Kunz, a highly gifted therapist. She hypothesized that the ability to assist healing, in a manner such as the laying-on of hands, is not a talent bestowed on special individuals but a capacity innate in all human beings. From careful observation of the work of many well-known healers, she defined the principles and goals of an approach that she felt had universal application and could be taught to those with a genuine interest. Dr. Dolores Krieger participated in the development of this approach and it was she who gave it the name Therapeutic Touch. Since the early 1970’s, the technique has been refined and its effects documented by many practitioners. This refinement process is far from complete, however, for if Therapeutic Touch is truly an aspect of our human potential its possibilities for further development are limitless.

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In 1975, the American Journal of Nursing published an experiment conducted by Dr. Krieger, which demonstrated a significantly greater increase in the mean hemoglobin level of a group of patients who received Therapeutic Touch than in that of a control group of patients who received routine nursing care. For several reasons, this experiment was a milestone in the development of Therapeutic Touch into a recognized clinical method.

First of all, it was conducted in New York City hospitals, thus setting an important precedent. Although Therapeutic Touch was somewhat unorthodox procedure, it began to be integrated into our traditional health care system. Most of my workshops, and those of my colleagues as well, are conducted in hospitals and nursing schools. We look upon Therapeutic Touch as complementary to medical and surgical procedures – not as a substitute for them.

Second, registered nurses with no previous experience in this type of healing participated in the experiment, thus supporting the view that Therapeutic Touch is a latent capacity within all human beings. I find that most people who attend the workshops can learn the basics quickly, but – as with any skill – their ability improves with practice.

Finally, the experiment indicated that it is indeed possible to gain knowledge about Therapeutic Touch through the use of controlled methods of scientific research. Although this technique requires a particularly subjective state on the part of the practitioner, it is nevertheless a consciously controlled state and can therefore be approached scientifically. At the same time, however, this healing method requires a level of sensitivity and skill that elevates it to the status of an art.

My colleagues and I have found that Therapeutic Touch is particularly helpful for people who are suffering from wounds and infections, from those at home with minor cuts and burns or the common cold to those in the hospital recuperating from surgery. The method not only helps to alleviate discomfort but also tends to speed up the healing process. Theoretically, this could be expected because directing life energy (or healing energy, as it is sometimes called) to a patient should be strengthening and thus foster a quicker recovery. These clinical observations are consistent with the findings of a carefully designed series of experiments in which there was a significant increase in the rate of wound healing in mice who received the laying-on of hands, a related procedure.

As is the case with any method of treatment, people respond in their own way to Therapeutic Touch. This is true even among those with the same type of problem. One evening, for instance, I treated three school-age boys who were admitted to the hospital with acute asthmatic attacks. The first boy stopped wheezing immediately afterwards: the second boy’s condition did not improve at all; and while the third boy continued to wheeze, his breathing became much easier and he fell asleep. Sometimes a person with several ailments will find that each one responds differently to Therapeutic Touch. One man, after his first treatment, said that his asthmatic condition was unchanged but that a rash which had been bothering him for weeks had disappeared almost immediately.

Sometimes a person responds psychologically more than physically. After a treatment the patient may say, for example, ‘I still have my pain but it doesn’t bother me so much right now.’ I once treated a woman who was to have surgery for bowel cancer the following week. At one point I felt an energy shift, which was accompanied by a profound feeling of peace. Afterwards, she said, “I saw the IV’s, the tubes, the drains – everything I have to face – and all my fear left me.” This woman’s experience is also a good illustration of the fact that the process of healing, that is, restoring wholeness, means helping each patient open up and tap, so to speak, an inner reservoir of peace, insight, and strength that is available to all.

We have found that the effectiveness of Therapeutic Touch is not dependent on the recipient’s conscious belief, as is the case with faith healing. All that is required on the part of an ill person is simply to sit or lie down quietly for about fifteen to twenty minutes while someone gives the treatment. I have used Therapeutic Touch to help babies and toddlers, who certainly could not profess any faith in the method, and teenagers who were often quite skeptical. The mouse experiments mentioned above are another indication that conscious belief is not necessary for beneficial results. Interestingly enough, the reverse can and does happen. People have sometimes come to me for treatments in the firm belief that Therapeutic Touch would help them, only to find that very little improvement occurred. In view of the current research in biofeedback and in the placebo effect, which demonstrates that the quality of a person’s thoughts can have a measurable effect on his body, it is reasonable to suppose that the degree to which a person believes in the efficacy of Therapeutic Touch should affect, to some extent, the outcome of the treatment. In view of the above observations, however, it is certain that there are other factors besides conscious belief that influence one’s response to the healing process.

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In general, a person with an acute illness responds more quickly to Therapeutic Touch than does one with a chronic illness. If a healthy person has a bout of indigestion after a holiday party, this can usually be relieved after one treatment, whereas a person with a chronic gastrointestinal problem would probably need regular treatments over an extended period of time. When a person has been ill for many years, the disabling energy pattern becomes ‘set’ or ingrained. During the healing process we try to help a person retrain the energy flow – to establish new habit patterns, so to speak, which are more open and balanced. Just as an athletic training program requires consistent practice with appropriate help and feedback from a coach, so also does a healing or energy-balancing program. For example, the condition of a woman with severe emphysema (which she had had for at least twenty years) improved gradually at first, but then suddenly – after eight months of weekly treatments – a fairly dramatic change began to occur. Her breathing became easier, she could walk briskly again, and her writing ability, which she felt she had lost, spontaneously returned. This woman’s experience illustrates not only the cumulative effect of regular Therapeutic Touch treatments but also the fact that the most profound healing generally involves a psychological as well as a physical change.

Very often we are unaware of the mental and emotional aspects of a physical problem. Effective healing, therefore, often necessitates an insight into one’s psychological patterns together with a willingness to change them. For example, sometimes a person has a physical problem that is associated with, and/or aggravated by feelings of resentment toward some person or situation. Unless he realizes this connection and can drop the resentment, there may be only a superficial healing – that is, a temporary relief of physical symptoms. In view of this, we can say that an individual’s habitual and/or unconscious thinking and feeling patterns affect the outcome of the treatment much more than does his faith or belief in the power of Therapeutic Touch.

One way in which this method helps to bring about a more profound healing is through evoking a state of relaxation in which the individual is centered in the present moment. In such a state it becomes easier to diminish negative patterns established in the past. During a treatment, one can generally see the common signs of relaxation in the patient, such as slower and deeper breathing, a loosening of muscle tension, and the dilation of peripheral blood vessels, which makes the hands and feet warm up and the face flush. Indeed, when Therapeutic Touch was first being developed, such observable signs of relaxation were the first indications that the method was effective. These observations were later documented in a case study in which three subjects were monitored physiologically during Therapeutic Touch. The recordings of the subjects brain waves, muscle tension, skin conductance, temperature, and heart rate all indicated that they were in a deeply relaxed state. Afterwards, the subjects confirmed the physiological data by reporting that during the treatment, they had felt relaxed and in a state of well-being.

Two subsequent experiments measured the effects of Therapeutic Touch on the acute anxiety of hospitalized cardiovascular patients. It was thought that if Therapeutic Touch was able to induce a state of physical relaxation, it might also be able to reduce the anxiety often associated with physical tension. The patients’ anxiety levels were measured on a standardized self-evaluation questionnaire before and after treatment, and the results of both experiments were similar: the mean post-test anxiety scores of the Therapeutic Touch groups were significantly lower than those of the control groups.

Because Therapeutic Touch helps to reduce anxiety we have found it to be helpful not only for people with stress-related physical disorders, such as tension headaches, high blood pressure, and ulcers, but also for those undergoing on emotional crisis. It is becoming apparent that the process has an integrating as well as a calming effect. A person who comes for a treatment in an upset state of mind will often say afterwards, ‘I feel more together,’ or ‘I feel less scattered,’ or ‘I feel like myself again.’ This fact is important because if unresolved emotional conflict (such as negative memory patterns) can lead to physical disease, then Therapeutic Touch – given during the time of a crisis – could help prevent the emergence of subsequent disorders. This method, therefore, can be used as a helpful adjunct to psychotherapy as well as to medical and surgical treatment. It can also be used very effectively at home, when a friend or family member is tired and upset.

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Since words are not necessary for Therapeutic Touch, the treatment can be a way of communicating with the terminally ill, who are often too tired to speak. Just because someone is very near death does not mean that he cannot benefit from this method, in fact, my colleagues and I have found that the terminally ill are often very responsive to the healing process. From the perspective of Therapeutic Touch, the physical body is only one aspect of our total being, thus it is possible to be ‘healed’ without being necessarily ‘cured’ of a specific disease. The focus of this method is on a broad concept of healing based on the balance of energy flow within the individual as a whole – and this whole includes body, mind, and inner spirit. The effectiveness of a treatment therefore, can be evaluated only in a relation to the total well-being of the individual patient.

As mentioned earlier, Therapeutic Touch is considered by those who practice it to be a capacity present in all human beings – a seed, so to speak, that lies within us all. Cultivating the seed requires three things: good health, sompassion, and discipline. Good health implies a basic sense of wholeness, or a general feeling of well-being. Compassion is the ability to empathize with those who are suffering; it implies a desire to help others without any other motivation or personal aim. The action is its own reward. Compassion, therefore, should never be confused with a state of emotional attachment or personal investment, for such attitudes actually hinder the healing process. Some self-discipline is necessary because Therapeutic Touch is a highly refined skill that is developed through regular practice. It is true that one can help people immediately after learning the basics (a fact that amazes many beginners), but with some dedicated practice one’s work becomes deeper and much more effective. This does not imply a dreary apprenticeship, however, because working with Therapeutic Touch is always interesting and full of surprises. A student who had been giving treatments for a few months said, in a very matter-of-fact way, ‘this has improved the quality of my life.’ All of us who are involved with Therapeutic Touch would agree with her and it is my hope that, as you learn this method, you also will find that it reveals and entirely new dimension of meaning and experience.’

(Reference: Macrae, Janet. ‘Therapeutic Touch, A practical guide’. Alfred A Knopf Inc. publishing, 1987)

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