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Table of Contents > Treatment Options > Therapeutic Touch
Therapeutic Touch

What is therapeutic touch?

Therapeutic touch is a form of healing that uses a practice called "laying on of hands" to correct or balance energy fields. The word "touch" is misleading because there is generally no direct physical touch involved. Instead, the hands are moved just over the body. Therapeutic touch is based on the theory that the body, mind, and emotions form a complex energy field. According to therapeutic touch, health is an indication of a balanced energy field and illness represents imbalance. Studies suggest that therapeutic touch can help to heal wounds, reduce pain, and promote relaxation.

What is the energy field?

Although scientists have not detected a human energy field, the concept of an energy field is also a part of other types of healing. In the ancient medical systems of India and China, the energy field is described as life energy. It is thought to exist throughout the body and is responsible for maintaining normal physiological, psychological, and spiritual functions. In Traditional Chinese Medicine this energy is called qi (pronounced "chee"), and in India's Ayurvedic medicine it is called prana.

What is the history of therapeutic touch?

Dolores Krieger, a professor at New York University School of Nursing, and Dora Kunz, a natural healer, developed therapeutic touch in the early 1970s. At first, Krieger and Kunz only taught the techniques to Krieger's graduate school nursing students, but Krieger's professional research and writing increased the popularity of the technique, particularly among nurses. The practice grew primarily through a grassroots effort of nurses throughout the United States. Today, therapeutic touch is taught at more than 100 hospitals and health centers worldwide and is most commonly practiced by nurses.

How does therapeutic touch work?

Scientists are not certain how therapeutic touch works. There are few studies, and scientific investigators have so far not detected the human energy field. Still, two theories have been put forward.

One theory is that the actual pain associated with a physically or emotionally painful experience (such as infection, injury, or a difficult relationship) remains in the body's cells. The pain stored in the cells is disruptive, and prevents some cells from working properly with other cells in the body. This results in disease. Therapeutic touch is thought to restore health by restoring communication between cells.

The other theory is based on the principles of quantum physics. As blood, which contains iron, circulates in our bodies an electromagnetic field is produced. According to this theory, at one time we could all easily see this field (called an aura), but now only certain individuals, such as those who practice therapeutic touch, develop this ability.

More generally, therapeutic touch is based on the idea that optimal health requires a balanced flow of life energy. Practitioners of therapeutic touch, by their own description, sense the your energy through their hands and then send healthy energy back to you. When receiving therapeutic touch you usually feel such things as warmth, relaxation, and/or pain relief. The practitioner describes your energy as hot or cold, active or passive, blocked or free. There are eight general regions of the body above which energy is sensed - head, throat, heart, stomach, lower abdomen, sacral region, knees, and feet. Ultimately, you, the recipient of therapeutic touch is the healer. The practitioner simply allows your body's own healing mechanisms to emerge. The role of the practitioner is to facilitate this process.

What should I expect on my first visit?

Before the session begins, you will be asked to sit or lie down. No undressing is necessary. Despite its name, therapeutic touch rarely involves physical contact between the therapist and the person being treated. Sessions can be broken down into four steps:

(1) Centering—the therapist becomes "centered" by using breathing, imagery, and meditation to achieve an altered state of consciousness for him or herself.

(2) Assessment—the therapist holds his or her hands 2 to 4 inches away from your body while moving from your head to your feet. This is done to assess the energy field surrounding your body. Therapists often describe feelings of warmth, coolness, static, and tingling over the areas of energy "congestion" or "blockage."

(3) Intervention—once a congested or blocked area is located, the therapist will move his or her hands in a rhythmic motion starting at the top of the blocked area and moving down and away from your body. This action, known as unruffling, is repeated until the therapist no longer senses congestion or until you begin to sense relief. The therapist will also visualize and transmit life energy to specific areas of your body, also intended to correct imbalances.

(4) Evaluation/Closure—once you've had a few minutes to relax, the therapist will ask you how you feel. He or she may recheck your energy field to be sure that no blockages were overlooked.

What is therapeutic touch good for?

Most studies indicate that therapeutic touch can relieve tension headaches and reduce pain, such as that associated with burns. osteoarthritis, or following surgery. It may also speed the healing of wounds and improve function in those with arthritis.

Therapeutic touch also promotes relaxation. Cancer, heart disease, and burn patients have reported that therapeutic touch significantly lessens their anxiety. Generally, the deep relaxation associated with therapeutic touch reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves breathing. Being relaxed may also lead to lower cholesterol levels and also may improve immune and bowel functions. Difficult pregnancies may also be made a little easier with the help of therapeutic touch.

Together with medical treatment, therapeutic touch can help with many additional conditions such as the following:

  • fibromyalgia
  • sleep apnea
  • restless leg syndrome (a disorder that causes insomnia)
  • allergies
  • bronchitis
  • addictions
  • lupus
  • Alzheimer's disease and, possibly, other forms of dementia

Some people indicate that they experience emotional and spiritual changes after receiving therapeutic touch. These may include greater self-confidence, self-control, and self-understanding.

There is still controversy, however, as to whether the healing power of therapeutic touch has anything to do with the "laying on of hands." Critics suggest that the healing observed after therapeutic touch may be the result of the relaxing nature of the therapy itself and not the energy transfer that is believed to occur between the therapist's hands and the individual's body.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

You may feel thirsty, lightheaded, and a need to urinate. Lightheadedness generally only lasts for 15 minutes after a session, but you may feel thirsty for days. According to some practitioners, if you were flooded with too much energy you might feel increased pain and be irritable, restless, anxious, or even nauseated. Therapeutic touch may also worsen fevers and active inflammation; therefore, it is best not to obtain therapeutic touch when you have either a fever or active inflammation (such as an acutely swollen joint from arthritis).

Some therapeutic touch practitioners recommend that children, the elderly, and very sick people be treated for only a short time. Although there is no actual touching involved with therapeutic touch, talk with your practitioner about what to expect from a session, particularly if you have been physically or sexually abused in your past.

How can I find a qualified practitioner?

There is no formal certification program in the United States for therapeutic touch. Most therapeutic touch practitioners are in the nursing profession (although some massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and others practice therapeutic touch as well). Nurse Healers-Professional Associates International (NH-PAI) recommends that people look for therapists who practice regularly (at least an average of 2 times per week), have at least 5 years of experience, and have completed at least 12 hours of therapeutic touch workshops. To locate a qualified practitioner near you, contact the NH-PAI at 703-234-4149 or visit their website at

What is the future of therapeutic touch?

While there appear to be many potential uses for therapeutic touch, particularly for chronically ill people, measuring the effectiveness of the technique is very difficult. Because of this, much of the research that exists has been criticized. Improved studies may lead to wider acceptance.

Supporting Research

Abbot NC. Healing as a therapy for human disease: a systematic review. J Altern Complement Med. 2000;6(2):159-169.

Allaire KM. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices for. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Astin JA, Harkness E, Ernst E. The efficacy of "distant healing": a systematic review of randomized trials. Ann Intern Med. 2000;132:903-910.

Aveyard B, Sykes M, Doherty D. Therapeutic touch in dementia care. Nurs Older People. 2002;14(6):20-21.

Begley SS. The energetic language of therapeutic touch. A holistic tool for nurse practitioners. Adv Nurse Pract. 2002;10(5):69-71.

Claman H. 'Unruffling' the mystique of therapeutic touch. And voices against TT. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(4):11.

Engebretson J, Wardell DW. Experience of a Reiki session. Altern Ther Health Med. 2002;8(2):48-53.

Gorski T. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices against. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Green S. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices against. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Kelley M. Strategies for innovative energy-based nursing practice: the healing touch program. SCI Nurs. 2002;19(3):117-124.

Kiernan J. The experience of Therapeutic Touch in the lives of five postpartum women. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs. 2002;27(1):47-53.

Lafreniere KD, Mutus B, Cameron S, et al. Effects of therapeutic touch on biochemical and mood indicators in women. J Altern Complement Med. 1999;5(4):367-370.

Ledwith S. Therapeutic Touch. In: Novey DW, ed. Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:462-471.

Leskowitz ED. Phantom limb pain treated with therapeutic touch: a case report. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2000;81(4):522-524.

London WM. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices against. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Lowry RC. The effect of an educational intervention on willingness to receive therapeutic touch. J Holist Nurs. 2002;20(1):48-60.

O'Mathúna, DP. Therapeutic Touch and Wound Healing. In: Micozzi MS, Bacchus AN, eds. The Physician's Guide to Alternative Medicine. Atlanta, Ga: American Health Consultants; 1999:273-276.

Peck SDE. The effectiveness of therapeutic touch for decreasing pain in elders with degenerative arthritis. J Holistic Nurs. 1997;15:176-198.

Randi J. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices against. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Redwood D. Therapeutic Touch. In: Micozzi MS, Bacchus AN, eds. The Physician's Guide to Alternative Medicine. Atlanta, Ga: American Health Consultants; 1999:261-264.

Rosa L, Sarner L. 'Unruffling' the mystique of therapeutic touch. And voices against TT. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(4):11.

Sampson W. Unruffling the mystique of therapeutic touch. TT: the voices against. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(2):7.

Slater VE. Healing Touch. In: Micozzi MS, ed. Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone Inc.; 1996:121-136.

Smith DW, Arnstein P, Rosa KC, Wells-Federman C. Effects of integrating therapeutic touch into a cognitive behavioral pain treatment program. Report of a pilot clinical trial. J Holist Nurs. 2002;20(4):367-387.

Tanne JH. Therapeutic touch fails text. BMJ. 1998;316:1037.

Turner JG, Clark AJ, Gauthier DK, Williams M. The effect of therapeutic touch on pain and anxiety in burn patients. J Adv Nurs. 1998;28(1):10-20.

Wardell DW, Engebretson J. Biological correlates of Reiki Touchism healing. J Adv Nurs. 2001;33:439-445.

Wilkinson DS, Knox PL, Chatman JE, et al. The clinical effectiveness of healing touch. J Altern Complement Med. 2002;8(1):33-47.

Winstead-Fry P, Kijek J. An integrative review and meta-analysis of therapeutic touch research. Alternative Therapies. 1999;5(6):58-67.

Winstead-Fry P. 'Unruffling' the mystique of therapeutic touch. A voice for TT. Nurs Pract. 2002;27(4):11.

Woods DL, Dimond M. The effect of therapeutic touch on agitated behavior and cortisol in persons with Alzheimer's disease. Biol Res Nurs.2002;4(2):104-114.

Review Date: December 2002
Reviewed By: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma and Senior Medical Editor A.D.A.M., Inc.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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