LAST month, part of a newspaper headline stopped me in my tracks. It proclaimed: "Therapeutic Touch Flunks the Test."
Anything about alternative therapy catches my eye. After all, such treatment ended 15 years of chronic back pain for me.
The newspaper article was about a Colorado girl, Emily Rosa, now 11, co-author with her parents and another researcher of a study apparently debunking therapeutic touch, an increasingly popular alternative treatment.
First a school science project, the study was later published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.
She must be an amazing kid. She did the experiment when she was 9. The investigation found that 21 practitioners of therapeutic touch could not reliably detect another person's "energy field," contrary to one of the practice's central tenets. So, according to Emily, the practitioners failed the test.
Today, however, this alternative treatment is practiced by about 43,000 health care professionals and more than 100,000 people worldwide have been trained in the technique. It is used in about 80 hospitals in North America.
The practice has been in use since ancient times. It is used to treat such ailments as chronic pain, surgical wounds, burns and high blood pressure.
The practitioners hold or move their hands a few inches above a patient's body, which is said to realign "energy fields" disturbed by illness. So Emily and her mother, a nurse, who had been amassing a large file debunking therapeutic touch, felt their short study was conclusive.
It is unusual that a fourth-grader would submit an experiment through her science class to the prestigious JAMA. The editors must have said, "Wow, what a story, let's print it. "
Many physicians still resist alternative medicines, even acupuncture.
After all, they don't want their practices to be tarnished or diminished by anything that is not in their medical textbooks, do they?
But many of their patients aren't listening. Americans spent $1.13 billion in 1993 on medicinal herbs, according to the American Medical Association. One in three Americans has used some form of alternative therapy. Doctors who are open to such therapies herald them as a new approach to "integrated medicine" -- a complement to tradition medicine.
Many touch therapists are disputing the results of Emily's small-scale experiment.
While little scientific evidence may back their claims, anecdotal evidence abounds. I have seen massage therapy, which is similar to touch therapy, work wonders.
I know a child who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990 and then treated to many sessions with a massage therapist; the disease has been in remission for years. I saw a cancer patient receive touch therapy while undergoing 30 radiation treatments. He has no more pain and has been cancer-free for five years.
First, with human touch comes a message of peace and hope for the person in pain, and anything that combines those two is worth embracing. If it's all in the mind, so be it.
A key relationship
Often, getting well is the result of a partnership. The sufferer must connect with the caregiver. With babies, the touch of the mother is an all-consuming healing technique. Hospital nurseries confirm this fact.
In 1978 a healing touch helped me walk again. It was Easter Sunday and I was in my 17th day of a hospital stay for a spinal fusion.
I awoke with a terrible depressed feeling of abandonment; I was alone, and it hurt to try to get up. Then a tall Haitian nurse with a divine gleam in her eyes came into my room and said, "Happy Easter, darling, let me help you stand." She put her hands on my back and moved them in a circular motion and helped me get up. She asked me if the pain was leaving. It was. After that, I walked a little bit better each day. Eventually, three years of deep accupressure massage relieved me of years of chronic pain.
The thousands of Americans who have had such success with touch therapy or massage therapy can't be wrong. A massage therapist with a medical clinic told me recently that she has seen wonderful results from her practice -- and most of her patients are doctors.
Elise Chisolm is a former Evening Sun columnist.
Pub Date: 5/26/98