Friday, April 23, 2010

Therapeutic Touch

Therapeutic touch is a “healing technique” in which a therapist places their hands near a patient and detects or manipulates the patient’s “energy field”. Russ Hobbie and I do not discuss therapeutic touch in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, nor will we include it in future editions. However, since this egregious example of “voodoo science” hasn’t gone away (see, let me address it here in this blog.

Bob Park described therapeutic touch in his delightful April 3, 1998 entry to his What’s New weekly column.
More than 40,000 health professionals have been trained in TT and it's offered by 70 hospitals in the US. And yet no one had ever checked to see if practitioners can, as they claim, tactilely sense such a field -- until now. The Journal of the American Medical Association this week published the research of a fourth-grade girl. For a science fair project, the little girl persuaded 21 touch therapists to submit to a beautifully simple test. In 280 trials, the 21 scored 44%. According to the editor of JAMA, reviewers found the study to be "solid gold." The James Randi Educational Foundation has been offering $1M to anyone who can pass a similar test -- only one tried (WN 27 Mar 98) , but a 9-year old must have seemed less threatening. The girl, Emily Rosa of Loveland, CO, now 11, plans to take on magnet therapy next."
Recently, Russ called my attention to Eugenie Mielczarek’s insightful commentary “Magnetic Fields, Health Care, Alternative Medicine and Physics” in the April 2010 edition of Physics and Society, the quarterly newsletter of the Forum of Physics and Society, a division of the American Physical Society. Mielczarek writes
“In Therapeutic Touch the protocol requires that a therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” allegedly “tuning” a purported “aura” of biomagnetic energy that extends above the patient's body. This is thought to somehow help heal the patient. Although this is less than one percent of the strength of Earth's magnetic field, corresponds to billions of times less energy than the energy your eye receives when viewing even the brightest star in the night sky, and is billions of times smaller than that needed to affect biochemistry, the web sites of prominent clinics nevertheless market the claims.”
Mielczarek is an emeritus professor at George Mason University. In 2006 she published a Resource Letter in the American Journal of Physics: “Physical Frontiers in Biology: A Resource for Students and Faculty” (Volume 74, Pages 375-381). Russ and I mentioned this publication in our 2009 Resource Letter on Medical Physics, where we wrote that Mielczarek’s letter “begins with a fascinating three-page essay on the role of physics in biology”. This week I discovered that the published black-and-white pictures in that 3-page essay are available in color at Mielczarek’s website. Mielczarek is an editor of the 1993 book Biological Physics, a collection of landmark biological physics papers. One of her research interests is the role of iron in biological systems, and in 2000 she coauthored the book “Iron, Nature’s Universal Element: Why People Need Iron and Animals Make Magnets,” which I just put onto my summer reading list. Actually we cite this “very readable” book in Section 8.8.3 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, but it must have been one of those things that Russ added to the 4th edition because I haven’t read it yet. We also cite Mielczarek’s American Journal of Physics paper “Experimental and Theoretical Models of Nonlinear Behavior" in Chapter 10 of our book.

For more information about the physics of therapeutic touch, see the article “Emerita Professor Makes a Case Against Distance Healing” in the Mason Gazette, and the press release “Think Tank Objects to Taxpayer Funding for Therapeutic Touch, other Alternative Medicine Therapies” from the Center of Inquiry.

Let us hope that hope that Bob Park and Eugenie Mielczarek continue to debunk the techniques of “alternative medicine” when they violate the laws of physics.

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