Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - October 2007
The touch that heals
|Hands-on energy therapies are growing in popularity, and science is beginning to document their health benefits.
To say that Donna Corpuz was skeptical when she first heard of touch therapy would be an understatement. The social worker from Tampa, Florida, even remembers referring to it as "kinda hokey." But in November 2004, a coworker who was a certified practitioner of Healing Touch, one form of touch therapy, offered to give her a 15-minute treatment so she could decide for herself.
"I had a really bad cold at the time and was severely congested," she recalls. But after the session, her congestion was gone and she was able to breathe normally. "I no longer felt like my head was in a fog, and I could function the rest of the day. I became a believer."
Kimberly Gray, integrative medicine coordinator at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, is the person who introduced Corpuz to the practice. She isn't surprised at all. "That's the beautiful part," she says. "The balance provided through the therapy can provide rapid, long-lasting benefits."
Indeed, research has found preliminary evidence for a number of health benefits of several forms of touch therapy. The list of documented benefits doesn't yet extend to clearing up congestion. But according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, several small studies have suggested that Therapeutic Touch, another popular form of touch therapy, might be effective for enhancing wound healing, reducing anxiety in burn patients, and helping relieve migraines and osteoarthritis.
Treatments before and after surgery are another common use of touch therapy. "Preoperatively, if you have someone who's less anxious before they go into surgery, you'll create an environment which is much better for them," says Diane W. Wardell, Ph.D., associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
|After Donna Corpuz had sinus surgery in 2006, Gray was in her recovery room. "I really believe that her treatment helped me clear from the anesthesia. I felt alert, and I was up and driving the next day," Corpuz says. From her experience with a previous surgery, she had expected it to take up to three days for the effects to wear off.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The term touch therapy is really a misnomer since little or no actual touch is involved. Instead, the practitioner holds his or her hands a few inches above the person's body or uses only light, gentle touch - nothing massagelike. The goal is to detect and correct imbalances in energy fields, called biofields, which are thought to exist around the human body. Practitioners of different types of touch therapy use slightly different methods to accomplish this.
In a typical touch therapy treatment, you remain fully clothed, usually lying on a table or reclining in a chair. The lighting often is subdued, and soft music might be playing in the background. An average session lasts 10–45 minutes, based on your condition and the type of touch therapy being performed. Depending on the region of the country, treatments range from $40–$100.
Both Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch are meant to be used along with (not in place of) standard medical care. They're widely available in hospitals and other health care settings. Lisa Anselme, R.N., executive director of Healing Touch International, estimates that Healing Touch alone has nearly 2,000 certified practitioners worldwide, most in North America.
SCIENCE CHIMES IN
So far, scientists have not been able to measure biofields by reproducible methods. Yet practitioners insist that the energy is both real and detectable by an experienced touch therapist. "Some might feel it as heat in their hands, while others might feel tingling, pressure, or a magnetic pull," says Holly Major, APRN, head of education for Nurse Healers-Professional Associates International, the official organization for practitioners of Therapeutic Touch.
There are other ways touch therapy might work. According to Catherine Kerr, Ph.D., a neuroscience researcher at Harvard Medical School, touch therapy has two key characteristics. First, it's relaxing. Second, it involves either touch sensations or the redirection of sensory attention to various parts of the body. Kerr says research has found that the combination of these two characteristics can affect the brain's maps of body sensations, which represent touch and pain as they are being felt. These brain areas are called cortical body maps.
|"We know that cortical body maps are abnormal in people with chronic pain," says Kerr. She notes it's likely that other physical symptoms are associated with abnormal maps as well. In a recent article (The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, January–February 2007), Kerr theorized that touch therapy might work, at least in part, by helping the brain correct flaws in its cortical body maps.
LESS PAIN, IMPROVED MOOD
Forms of touch therapy have been the subject of numerous studies, many of which were small and not very rigorously controlled. Recently, though, a few larger, better-controlled studies have yielded some promising results.
One such study (Integrative Cancer Therapies, December 2003) included 230 cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. The patients were randomly divided into three groups: Healing Touch, massage therapy, or a "caring presence" (where the patients were simply asked to lie down while a therapist sat nearby). Both Healing Touch and massage were more effective than a caring presence alone at inducing relaxation, reducing pain, decreasing fatigue, and improving mood.
Another study (Nursing Science Quarterly, Fall 1998) looked at the benefits of Therapeutic Touch in 82 older adults with arthritis. The study participants were randomly assigned to receive six sessions of either Therapeutic Touch or progressive muscle relaxation, a relaxation technique that involves alternately tensing and relaxing all the major muscle groups of the body while focusing intently. In both groups, pain and tension decreased while mood and satisfaction improved after the treatment. Hand function also improved in the Therapeutic Touch group.
Overall, one analysis of 13 studies that looked at Therapeutic Touch found a moderate treatment effect. But "the evidence supporting Therapeutic Touch is still somewhat equivocal," says Kerr. "One problem is the whole question of what an appropriate control should be." Should touch therapy by a qualified practitioner be compared to touch by an untrained person, nontouch treatments such as progressive muscle relaxation, or no treatment at all other than standard medical care? Kerr says the jury is still out on this question, and the lack of an agreed-upon research methodology makes it difficult to compare one study to another.
Wardell has conducted her own review of more than 30 studies on Healing Touch (Journal of Nursing Scholarship, June 2004). She notes that more large, randomized controlled trials also are needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about its effectiveness. In addition, Wardell is eagerly awaiting the results of ongoing studies investigating biological markers that may be influenced by touch therapy. "Until we really understand how this works, we've got to rely on the [reports of the] people who experience it," she says.
Donna Corpuz isn't waiting. She still recalls her surprise during her first Healing Touch session when she felt gentle heat and a pulsating sensation on her skin. She even opened her eyes to see if Gray's hands were actually touching her body (they weren't). Corpuz says, "What I tell people is that you've got to try it at least once."
LEARN MORE: Check the online directories of the Nurse Healers-Professional Associates International (www.therapeutic-touch.org) and Healing Touch International (www.healingtouchinternational.org) to locate a touch therapist.
8 uses for touch therapy
We asked experts Holly Major, APRN, and Diane W. Wardell, Ph.D., to identify the best-established uses for touch therapy, based on preliminary research and clinical experience. Here are their picks:
- Reducing stress
- Decreasing anxiety
- Managing pain
- Increasing comfort
- Improving mood
- Enhancing immune response
- Relieving cancer-related symptoms
- Promoting wound healing